A tale told by an idiot, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing

In many respects, 2018 has been another thoroughly dispiriting year on the climate and environment beat. The publication in October of the IPCC’s SR1.5 report extinguished any remote hope that the pace and severity of climate breakdown might be less than feared.

Paul Krugman in the NYT last month surveyed the horrific damage being done by climate deniers and contrarians in a column titled: ‘The depravity of climate change denial, Risking civilization for profit, ideology and ego’. And frankly, that’s exactly how I see it.

Domestically, the hope that the faucet of anti-science nonsense infecting the Irish media had been finally turned off were well and truly dashed just before Christmas, with the publication of a ‘report’ by retired meteorologist Ray Bates for the secretive London-based climate denier think tank, the GWPF.

As anyone with even a passing understanding of how science works will know, if a scientist has prepared a bona fide critique of mainstream science, the next step is to submit it for peer-review and publication in a relevant science journal. That way, the claims and underlying assumptions presented can be thoroughly fact-checked and challenged if necessary by qualified scientists before publication and certainly, before you go rushing to the Farmers Journal or a climate denial  think tank with secretive funding sources and a long record in spreading doubt and disinformation.

Unsurprisingly, the Farmers Journal chose to splash this in its columns. It has cynically enabled the peddling of anti-science dogma for at least the last 18 months, and shows no sign of letting up.

Bates’s column was grandly titled: ‘I do not see the current scientific evidence as indicating we are in a state of planetary emergency’. Had that been the end of it, I wouldn’t have even bothered mentioning it here, given the Journal has long since abandoned all pretence at journalism on environmental and climate matters.

However, worse, much worse, was to follow, the next day, when, quite inexplicably, the Irish Times chose to reheat some of Bates’s red herrings in a news report headed: ‘Irish scientist questions warnings on climate change’. This was catnip to deniers everywhere, and sure enough, this report was quickly lapped up by denier blogs and publications worldwide. What makes this even more unfortunate and difficult to fathom is that the Irish Times has significantly upped its game on climate coverage in the last year or two

Every action has, however, an equal and opposite reaction. First, Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, an actual practising climatologist and IPCC Lead Author, issued a quite devastating take-down of Bates’s scholarship in a detailed posting on the ICARUS website. He explained Bates’s “wilful misinterpretation of AR5 attribution findings” and continues: “Ray Bates goes on to throw in a couple of red herrings on the Oceans for good measure”.

Thorne then went on to explain the painfully obvious: despite his protestations, Bates is simply not a climatologist. “Ray has had a long and distinguished career. But that career has been in atmospheric dynamics and not climate. Yes, both are to do with the atmosphere, but when your toilet is backing up you call the plumber and not the electrician. In the same way when looking for guidance on climate change it is advisable to listen to the climate scientists”, Thorne expanded.

Then, the most damming of all: “The analysis of Ray Bates is not a peer reviewed paper and finding substantive flaws in it is really not that hard. This has taken me all of an hour of an evening”. Worse, much worse, was to come for Bates. The coup de grace was delivered the following day, by no less an authority than Dr Gavin Schmidt, eminent climatologist, climate modeller and Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“As dark nights draw in, the venerable contrarians at the GWPF are still up late commissioning silly pseudo-rebuttals to mainstream science”, Schmidt began, and it didn’t get any better from there. Bates’s attempt to claim the SR1.5 report was at odds with the IPCC’s core findings was dismissed as: “categorically, absolutely, and totally, untrue”. After tearing several more strips off Bates’s repeated misrepresentations of science, Schmidt concludes wearily: “Overall, this is basically a dialed-in work-for-hire. It’s incoherent, inconsistent, a little bit funny and adds nothing to our understanding of the science behind the SR15 report, or indeed any aspect of the attribution issue.”

For anyone with a shred of concern for their own standing among their ‘peers’ this is beyond devastating, but lest any of Bates’s fan-base at the ICSF and IFA/IFJ were still a little unclear as to how the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies regards their star climatologist, Schmidt sums it all up with a quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

“It is a tale
Told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing”.


Separately, earlier this month, taking a cue from the absolutely inspirational 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, I pitched a piece to the Irish Times, and was beyond chuffed when they commissioned an article in two parts, one section written by me, the other, by my 16-year-old daughter, Sophie (her very first venture into print). The link to the article I posted on my Twitter account has been viewed and shared over 60,000 times, so it clearly struck a chord. The full text is below.

Finally, to everyone who continues to fight the good fight on climate and environmental action and activism, I salute and applaud you. The odds have never looked worse, but to borrow a line from author Harper Lee: ‘Real courage is when you know you’re licked but you begin anyway, and see it through, no matter what’.

In 2019, let’s begin, once again. Happy new year.


“WHY SHOULD I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly means nothing to our society?”

It is hard to argue with the razor-sharp logic of 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, as she spelled out to the UN climate conference in Poland last week the reason why she has embarked on a “climate strike” in Sweden since September.

“Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” Thunberg added.

She has a point. And if you doubt it, consider the recent statements made by Ireland’s most senior civil servants representing the “public interest” to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action. Flanked by advisers, they trooped in, day after day, to explain why Ireland, a wealthy nation, cannot possibly be expected to meet even its minimum legal and ethical obligations on climate action.

Their positions both reflect and amplify the political lacuna that engulfs almost every effort at meaningful environmental stewardship in Ireland. These same officials and politicians doubtless have children they care deeply for and actively plan for their future. Yet their actions and inactions are in a very real sense helping to burn that same future to the ground.

Naturalist, David Attenborough (92) was a young teenager just as Europe exploded into the deadliest conflict in human history. Today, he is adamant the threats facing the world are immeasurably greater than even the second World War.

“Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change”, Attenborough told a stunned audience in Katowice, Poland. “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Last month, thousands of Australian students, inspired by Thunberg, walked out of their schools for a one-day strike. Some were threatened with disciplinary action. Australian resource minister Matt Canavan jeered that they should be in school learning about mining, and all they would learn on their protest would be “how to join the dole queues”.

It takes profound cognitive dissonance for otherwise intelligent adults to pretend not to grasp basic science. “Why should we go to school when you won’t listen to the educated?” read one of the posters at a rally in Sydney.

“Nothing could be more damaging for our democracy than for budding citizens to be told by the powerful to get back in their boxes and shut up,” ethicist Prof Clive Hamilton wrote last week. “Thank God the kids have decided they won’t be bullied.”

School protests have now spread to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland and Denmark. When will we see the first one in Ireland?

As a citizen and journalist, I am angry and frustrated at the appalling cynicism in Ireland’s collective non-response to this unfolding tragedy. But as a parent, I am simply terrified.

John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator


Why I would like to see a strike in my school

When I think about the world around me today I can’t help but fear for my own future. Every single day, fossil fuels are being burned and more species are going extinct. The natural world has been so severely damaged, I honestly don’t see much hope for my adult life.

When people talk about climate change it is never described as a crisis or something that should be dealt with now. It is not something that many people think about going about their day to day lives but it is what will have the most effect on our lives in the coming years.

We are treating this earth like we have a second one to go to or a “plan B” but we don’t. This is where we live, this is the only planet we can live and thrive on and we are throwing it all away. Politicians and other adults who we children and teenagers look up to and who we are told to trust are just ignoring this crisis. I know that scientists have been trying to warn them that the world is in danger due to human actions.

More action needs to be taken, this is our future more than theirs. Many of today’s adults won’t have to worry about what’s happening in 40 or 50 years. It is us, the children of this generation who will be so greatly affected, we will have to pick up the broken pieces of our world once we become adults. Our children may never know what an elephant or a tiger is because they were all killed off before they were even born. Even the birds are disappearing.

I admire what the school strikers are doing and I would love to see it happen in Ireland  and in my own school.

Sophie Gibbons (16) is a transition-year student in Dublin

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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7 Responses to A tale told by an idiot, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing

  1. Pingback: A tale told by an idiot, full of sound & fury, signifying nothing | Climate Change

  2. Tony Carey says:

    Dear John Gibbons,
    Oliver Sacks in his 2018 paperback “The River of Consciousness” [p.207] has warned that “Undermining one’s existing beliefs and theories can be a very painful, even terrifying, process – painful because our mental lives are sustained, consciously or unconsciously, by theories, sometimes invested with the force of ideology or delusion.”

    If are nevertheless prepared to enter an object dialogue about climate change, please contact me. Yours etc. Tony Carey, Independent scientist, County Wicklow, Ireland

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Dear Tony

    I know it’s a hobby of yours to write to people, lots of people, in the science communications business, with your kind offer to ‘set them straight’. Well done on locating that Oliver Sacks quote, it appears to describe with painful accuracy the weird groupthink you and a handful of other, for want of a better description, ‘independent scientists’ over at the ICSF appear to be suffering from.

    The article above quotes one of the world’s leading climatologists, holding the post of Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, no less, explaining how your friend is engaging in “wilful misrepresentation” of science. This view is 100% supported by Ireland’s most senior practising (as opposed to long-retired or hobbyist) climatologist, who describes your friend’s non-peer-reviewed non-scientific piece as: “a cut-and-paste of long-debunked arguments from climate change deniers published by a highly questionable thinktank”.

    Normally, this would give a reasonable person pause to wonder if maybe, just maybe, their friend is not exactly the iconoclastic expert they had thought? But no, Tony, I’m well aware that your capacity for reflecting on evidence and adjusting your position accordingly is just about zero. And rather than waste another half hour explaining why this is the case, let me just offer a link to a 2013 blog post by physicist, Cormac O’Rafferty, in which you attempted to ‘set him straight on the science’ (sound familiar?).

    Cormac, in his innocence, mistook your pointless nitpicking as honesty enquiry, until he eventually rumbled you, as follows: “Oh dear. As so often, I mistook Tony’s first comment above as genuine curiosity, but now the same old conspiracy theory is revealed”. He also called you out on your nasty attempt to smear him by accusing him of a ‘serious error’ in a letter that the Irish Times was naive enough to publish. Cormac absolutely refuted this allegation, but nowhere did you ever withdraw it. Real scientists don’t sling mud like this, but perhaps ‘independent scientists’ consider this a fair tactic?

    Anyhow, Tony, I have to grudgingly admire your chutzpah in your letter above: sadly, since you yourself clearly have no idea or simply don’t care how real science (as opposed to ICSF/GWPF conspiracy theorising and cherry-picking) works, sadly I’ll have to decline your offer to, um, ‘enter an object dialogue about climate change’.

    Finally, if the above seems unclear, can I refer you to this excellent summary of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which may help you to understand how your belief system places you at odds with the entire publishing scientific community, and how you find widely discredited conspiracy theorists and quacks somehow more plausible – and this fact doesn’t bother or discomfit you in the slightest:

    You’re welcome.

  4. Peter Walsh says:

    Thanks again John for continuing to fight the good fight! In case you haven’t seen it I would like to draw your –and your readers’ -attention to ‘First Reformed’ the widely acclaimed film by Paul Schrader released last year. It went somewhat under the radar here but I think its particular importance lies in its core theme focusing on the nexus between corporate greed, fundamentalist religion and the environmental crisis –especially significant in the U.S.A.?! While a ‘theist’ myself, I believe this is a key aspect of the environmental crisis which doesn’t get anything like the attention it deserves? Arguably this is a debate to be tackled within the many ‘faith communities’, but I suspect engaging with the phenomenon on a broader front might provide an insight into the psychological underpinnings of climate change ‘denialism’? Here’s a short article from Variety on Schrader’s despair on climate change -I couldn’t hyperlink but it should work if you copy / paste into search engine:

    But let’s hope for a better 2019 -Happy New Year!

  5. Coilin MacLochlainn says:

    John, – I find your article and that of your daughter’s very honest and moving. There is no greater threat than climate change, which is moving very quickly now and will come to dominate all of our lives if we don’t row back very soon, or essentially now.

    Even if we actually do everything possible to row back, and the rest of the world does the same, the benefits of our actions will only be seen in 500 years’ time, because that is how long it will take for the carbon dioxide we have released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution to be removed from the atmosphere by nature.

    We are in a very serious situation now, and I am alarmed to read in your article that noteworthy elements of Irish society are still promoting a climate denialist agenda. Most notably, the Irish Farmers’ Journal (IFJ): it is a major scandal that a national journal with a proud and accomplished history would now be completely disingenuous, false and misleading, selling the equivalent of snake oil to its readers, given that we are in a crisis.

    You would think the IFJ would have the integrity to tell farmers that enterprises causing the most carbon emissions, especially beef and dairy, have to be scaled back and phased out, to be replaced by alternative enterprises such as cereals and horticulture (both of which actually produce more food per acre than beef or dairy, a very significant matter as the world population grows).

    The long-retired Ray Bates is still shocking for his brazen defiance of the harsh realities of climate science. I never believed him.

    So, what are our chances of surviving going forward? The oceans have absorbed most of the carbon dioxide and most of the heat from global warming so far, and there is no way we can cool the oceans.

    So, even if we completely end the burning of fossil fuels today and await the restoration of normal climate, it won’t happen for centuries to come, because the oceans are hot, they have been absorbing heat for centuries, and it will take centuries more for the oceans to cool; we have no way of cooling the seas. We are talking about a thousand years and probably more for things to return to an even keel, even if we do everything possible right now.

    Meantime, in our immediate future, the ice caps and glaciers will continue to melt, no matter what we do, because of the heat locked in the seas and the carbon dioxide stored in the atmosphere.

    But we still must address the problem, because we have to make things less worse for future generations than it already looks like they’re going to be.

    Whether there will be any future for future generations is a moot point. As things stand, and if there is no radical change to our approach, then the human population may be doomed.

    Most of the earth’s other living animals and plants will die before us, apart from the simplest, such as the blue-green algae, which might live to fight another day. But even if some algae, bacteria and viruses survive the coming collapse, it doesn’t mean the earth will rise again and evolve trees, fishes, mammals and intelligent beings like us. That process would take hundreds of millions of years, and by then the earth will have drifted closer to the sun and become much hotter, making the resurgence of sophisticated, intelligent life next to impossible, according to scientists.

    That means we have only one chance to maintain human life as we know it, for another few hundred million years, and that chance is right now, in our lifetimes, and if we fail, then human life will be lost, along with all of the other wonderful creatures and extraordinary plant life we currently enjoy.

    I know it sounds almost ridiculous to think that we are on the brink of calamitous change when everything in our world, the western world anyway, has never been better. We jump in a car and drive to a supermarket without a moment’s thought about the incalculable amount of research and development that went into making that car possible.

    I find it almost surreal to drive down a motorway in one of these utterly extraordinary machines knowing that, while humans have existed for three or more million years, the car has existed for little more than one hundred, and yet we take it for granted, and on top of that, it is also doomed.

    The entire history of the car is bound up with the discovery of oil, an energy source so rich and bountiful it fuelled every development in the last one hundred years. That era is now almost over. I know that, but still I find it almost impossible to imagine what is to come.

    The car manufacturers tell us the future will be one of electric cars and autonomous or self-driving vehicles. And yes, maybe that will be true for a little while, like for one or two decades, as the world tries to reduce carbon emissions to stave off climate change.

    But two things will make this grind to a halt: first, the world will run out of oil and gas and, second, even before the oil runs out, the climate will break down in apocalytic fashion.

    This doesn’t even address the question of how electric cars will be manufactured: how will any cars be manufactured when the oil necessary to power the mining of raw materials runs out? It is a pipe-dream being sold by car manufacturers. In reality, all cars, electric or with internal combustion engine, will disappear relatively soon.

    So, assuming I’m correct about all of the above, and my reading of the literature would suggest that I am, then is there anything that can be done to avert the coming apocalyse? As I mentioned above, even if we stop burning fossil fuels completely, the oceans will still retain the heat absorbed since the earth first started heating in the industrial revolution (from around 1760) and it will take many centuries for the oceans to cool again.

    That means we will not only have to stop burning fossil fuels, we will also have to start sucking carbon dioxide out of the air. This will require tall devices throughout the landscape whose sole purpose will be to remove carbon dioxide from the air. You could picture them as wind turbines, but with a different purpose. Unfortunately, they will cost a lot and the longer we put off building them the more of them we will have to build and the costlier the process will become.

    Assuming that works out okay and we radically reduce the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, we will still be left with the heat in the oceans. To combat that threat, it will be necessary to use geo-engineering, defined as the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the earth’s climate system, with the aim of mitigating the adverse affects of global warming.

    I never thought I would say that, because the risks are huge, but given that the nations of the world are not shaping up to the demands of the Paris Climate Accord, and Ireland is the worst offender of all in Europe, then radical geo-engineering technology might be all that saves us from complete wipeout, even if we end up with a sky that is no longer ever blue, only off-white.

  6. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for your kind comments, and for flagging Schrader’s work. I’m not familiar with him, but will certainly follow it up. I’ve long felt that there has been very limited engagement on the part of many major religions with ecological limits. Religion, by definition, describes humans as quite apart from the rest of the natural world, whose ultimate future does not in fact belong to this world at all, and that kind of reasoning feeds a sense of disconnect and dominion. As a species, we humans are remarkable in many ways, but taken in the round, we could do with a lot more humility and a far greater respect for and understanding of the natural world and the miraculous web of life within which we exist.

  7. John Gibbons says:

    Good to hear from you. I share your sense of frustration with the likes of the IFJ and their role in promoting science denial. It’s hardly sophisticated, simply naked self-interest trumping civic responsibility or even basic decency and honesty. I imagine that, within their own self-regarding bubble, they are just ‘sticking up for farming’ but that has never justified the kind of wholesale garbage they are now peddling, working with the anti-science ICSF to muddy the waters and sabotage political action on climate change. As you describe above, we are going to have to deal with the consequences of our collective ecological overreach for decades, even centuries into the future. And our future will either be a whole lot different than our present and our recent past – or we simply won’t feature in the future at all. The actions we take – or don’t take – right now, and in the very immediate future, will echo for millennia. No species has an absolute right to exist and survive. Species come and go, and those that operate beyond the carrying capacity of their environment rarely last long. That’s our current position. Whether it’s our fate remains to be seen.

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