Challenging Ireland’s climate contrarian-in-chief

Back in May 2014, UCD meteorologist, Prof Ray Bates penned a heartfelt plea for continued inaction on climate change, under the lurid headline: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’. It was a weak, poorly argued exercise in that most unscientific of pursuits, namely cherry-picking. The piece was duly taken apart on this blog and elsewhere.

The most comical aspect of Bates’ stirring call to climate inaction was that, as far as we could tell, the reason this scientist was demanding that we low-ball the real and rapidly accelerating risks from climate change was his passionate desire to ensure that the expansionist agenda of the Irish agricultural sector not be in any way constrained by such irksome burdens as our legally mandated requirements to cut GHG emissions in the near and medium term. What, you might ask, has exporting beef and milk powder got to do with climate science? Yes, precisely nothing.

As I wondered aloud at the time: “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 that very much includes our agriculture sector”.

We are all still waiting for an answer. Undeterred, Bates at the start of this month winkled his way back onto the OpEd pages of the Irish Times to essentially re-hash his 2014 cri de coeur for his beloved beef and dairy industry. Sheltering behind his impressive scientific credentials, Bates this time went a good deal further.

He concluded his latest jeremiad with the stirring injunction that we should approach the Paris COP21 negotiations later this year: “based on scientific findings and on pragmatism, not ideology”. For Bates to conclude his ideologically charged and scientifically suspect article in this fashion was bordering on high farce.

Under his newly minted guise of “an Irish citizen”, Bates rolled off a sly misrepresentation of the (already highly conservative) IPCC findings. Barry McMullin of An Taisce offered a robust critique of this article via the Letters page, zeroing in on his “idiosyncratic downplaying of the stark warnings contained in recent reports from the highly respected UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

Next, Justin Kilcullen weighed in with a killer blow regarding Bates’ canard about food security: “Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Firstly, beef and dairy production have nothing to contribute to world food security. If anything they will achieve the opposite in the long term. The idea the people of Africa and Asia will be surviving on Irish beef and cheese in years to come is risible.”

While McMullin, Kilcullen and others made valid criticisms of Bates’ piece, what was missing from the ensuing correspondence in the Letters page was an expert response to the equally risible scientific claims set out by Bates under the cover of his CV as a once-decorated scientist.

What, you might ask, did Ireland’s pre-eminent climate scientist, Prof John Sweeney, make of this article? Surely, if it really was as bad as I’m suggesting, you’d expect Prof Sweeney to have had no choice but to set the record straight. Well, that’s exactly what he did…or tried to do. Sweeney wrote a careful, measured but quite devastating response, picking apart the deeply flawed science in Bates’ article (“complacent…contrarian…cherry-picked”) and submitted it to the Letters page within two or three days of publication of the offending article.

Incredibly, while the Irish Times was prepared to give prominent editorial space to a climate contrarian, it then denied the ‘right of reply’ of the 97% IPCC consensus of climate scientists to the numerous (and I use Sweeney’s own phrase here) “scientific inaccuracies which permeate the article”.

In the interests of a complete and accurate response to Bates’ article, I reproduce below in full the letter the Irish Times, in its wisdom, deigned not fit for publication (An Taisce have just issued a press statement on a modified version of this here):

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

Sir,

I congratulate the Irish Times for its enlightened editorial of Friday 3rd July, particularly as it offered a rebuttal of some of the opinions expressed earlier in the week by Professor Ray Bates. Not for the first time, Professor Bates sought to espouse his contrarian views regarding the seriousness of climate change by a selective ‘cherry picking’ of the recent IPCC Assessment Report and a misinterpretation of current climate science.

There are many aspects of the various contentions made by Prof. Bates which lack robustness, too many to reply individually to. However what is most disappointing from an academic perspective is the selective quoting of only that part of a paragraph from the 5th Assessment Report which appears to suit his arguments. He states that recent warming has been confined to two periods (supposedly ending in 1998), and contends that the human contribution to this warming is comparable to the ‘natural’.

The sentence cherry picked from the IPCC was as follows: “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”. Had he wished to accurately report the paragraph concerned he would have emphasised the immediately following sentence in the Report also. This clarifies that the “more than half” attribution is effectively a minimum; in fact the current best scientific estimate is that essentially all of the warming over the last 60 years is due to human activity (“The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period”).

There are a number of other scientific inaccuracies which permeate the article. The claimed increased uncertainty regarding causes of future sea level rise is just one. Far from increased uncertainty in attributing causes to sea-level rise, the recent IPCC Report provided a closed budget for the first time, the very opposite of increased uncertainty. Similarly, the preoccupation with the rate of warming since 1998 is also at variance with what has actually been observed. Warming has continued since 1998 and 2014 was the warmest year on record, with early indications that 2015 will exceed even this. While short term variations occur in where the heat of the planet is being stored, its continuing, rapid, and accelerating warming, due primarily to human activity, is not in any significant scientific doubt whatsoever.

Despite Professor Bates’ complacent contention to the contrary, it is absolutely valid to describe the problem of climate change as a ‘planetary emergency’. This weekend in southern Germany over 30 science Nobel Laureates gathered to make a declaration on climate change. They made a similar declaration nearly 60 years ago about nuclear arms. Their considered opinion is that “our world today faces another threat of comparable magnitude”.

Professor Bates cites an unidentified conference to substantiate his alternative arguments. Perhaps if he had attended the Climate Justice conference in Maynooth two weeks ago that he refers to, and listened to UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson, or heard the poignant case made by the Prime Minister of Tuvalu at the recent conference on the Papal Encyclical in Rome which I attended, he might reconsider his blind acceptance of the ‘national interest’ as the message Ireland wants to send the world on this issue.

Yours etc.

Emeritus Professor John Sweeney, Maynooth University

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

Shortly before placing his article with the Irish Times, Bates had rehashed the same arguments for that most eager of audiences – the Irish Farmers Journal, mouthpiece of the IFA, an organisation that has shown great determination to not understand climate change (presumably because that might throw a sprong in the wheels of their agri-expansionist agenda).

In keeping with his curious habit of replying to private emails by cc’ing uninvolved parties, Bates responded to a (private) email I sent to him in early June wondering if he was aware that both NASA and the NOAA had now categorically refuted the ‘climate hiatus’ hypothesis by cc’in the Editor of the Farmers’ Journal, among others.

I pointed out that, according to NOAA, the peer-reviewed study found that: “the rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than that seen during the latter half of the 20th century. The study refutes the notion that there has been a slowdown or “hiatus” in the rate of global warming in recent years”. Well, that’s pretty clear then.

Then again, maybe not. Ray explained to me that, being a proper scientist, and not a mere ‘science writer’ like me, he doesn’t rush to judgement. Fair enough. His point was ever so slightly undermined by his including and referencing in his email reply a copy of an article from Wattsupwiththat, a hardcore US climate denial website. According to Bates, “I have read some reactions to the paper by scientists who have had time to study it – please see the attachment.  These comments, some of which are by scientists for whom I have great respect, do not inspire confidence in the results or significance of the paper.”

So, who are the folks in the WattsUpwiththat article who Bates finds more convincing than those alarmists at NASA and the NOAA? (didn’t those same NASA shysters who he finds so uninspiring just manoeuvre a space probe 5 billion kilometres across the solar system to map Pluto in exquisite detail?). How about Judith Curry, Patrick Michaels, Richard Lindzen – and my personal favourite and occasional sparring partner, the litigious Honourable Lord Monckton of Blechley. In short, a roll-call of some of the world’s most prominent anti-climate science ideologues, contrarians and spin doctors.

These are also the people Ray Bates has such tremendous respect for that he is prepared to take their word ahead of NASA, the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Society, and their counterparts in every major country in the world.

And as for the IPCC? Bates has found, like many others engaged in motivated reasoning that if you pick and choose your sentences carefully, you can claim – to a lay audience – to be speaking with the authority of the IPCC. As Prof Sweeney has shown so clearly above, Bates is instead grossly misrepresenting and distorting the IPCC’s published reports to buttress his own idiosyncratic, contrarian standpoint.

His Canute-like defence of industrialised beef and dairy exporting at the very moment when every credible scientist and scientific organisation on Earth is warning of a deepening global emergency would be comical, were it not for the fact that, at least in some quarters, Bates is still seen as having something useful to contribute to the debate on how we respond to climate change.

Despite his repeated public utterance on agriculture and climate change, Bates has never – ever – published anything in the scientific literature on this subject, hence his new “concerned citizen” persona, ie. I’m a respected expert when it suits, but just Joe Public when it doesn’t.

Apart from not being an expert of any sort in this field, Bates also refuses to engage with the ample scientific literature, both in Ireland and elsewhere, which shows the absolute vulnerability of the agricultural sector to the ravages of climate change. While the IFA may be forgiven for such blinkered thinking, for a trained scientist to tip-toe over these facts is, to put it mildly, bizarre.

I wonder what the actual experts on agriculture might think? Prof Alan Matthews of TCD is such a specialist. He is also on the newly formed Advisory Council on Climate Change. Back in early June, Matthews committed the treasonable heresy of pointing out that, in the absence of EU subsidies, virtually the entire Irish beef sector would be insolvent. For his insolence, the IFA suggested he be removed from the Advisory Council.

“If you were to add in the additional costs of greenhouse gases those net margins would be even more negative. This really makes you wonder, is this not a cheap abatement option?”, ventured Matthews. Ireland would benefit, both financially and environmentally, by exiting the unprofitable and GHG-intensive beef business and transferring large areas of the country to forestry.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted the exquisite irony by now, of the (actual) agriculture expert concerned about climate change and GHG abatement versus the meteorologist cheerfully prepared to gamble on the future of human civilisation and ignore every red flag warning from all the world’s leading scientific academies and journals, just as long as the beef and dairy sectors keep on putting luxury foods on the tables of the world’s middle classes.

Bates’ argument, in summary, is that he reckons future global warming will be on the low end of the range of probabilities set out in the various IPCC reports (MIT scientists have helpfully developed a ‘Greenhouse Gamble’ wheel, which you can click to calculate probability of a range of outcomes. It is not even remotely reassuring). To support this view, he carefully picks and chooses supporting arguments, while ignoring uncooperative evidence (such as the recent NOAA/NASA study) and suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the IPCC climate models have got it wrong (which in turn conveniently ignores the fact that global instrumental observations are also tracking the unmistakable signature of rapid anthropogenic climate change).

He may, of course, be right. Statistically, the likelihood of low climate sensitivity leading to less than 2C of global warming this century is possible, but just not at all likely (even less so  when policymakers follow the advice of contrarians). It is every bit as possible, statistically, that the climate may instead show high sensitivity, leading to 4,5 or 6C+ temperature rises this century, leading to a carbon Armageddon, including the evisceration of global agriculture.

The most likely (c.3C) mid-range climate sensitivity would change the face of the Earth this century, placing billions of people in danger, inundating low-lying (and heavily populated) coastal areas and creating countless millions of climate refugees.

While we can all hope for low climate sensitivity (and that no nasty positive feedbacks kick in any time soon), it would be grossly irresponsible to base a do-nothing policy on what is little more than ideologically motivated, scientifically baseless optimism that is likely to lead to irreversible human immiseration on a scale beyond our bleakest imaginings.

Bates is as entitled as you, me or anyone else to express his views on climate science and, for that matter, agricultural policy. But the fact that he speaks as a rank amateur on the latter while systematically misrepresenting the former means the media and other organisations’ tendency to present him as a disinterested ‘climate expert’ needs to be vigorously – and repeatedly – challenged.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Global Warming, Irish Focus, Media, Sceptics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Challenging Ireland’s climate contrarian-in-chief

  1. Peter Walsh says:

    John, great posting as usual and thanks for publishing J. Sweeney’s letter.
    On a related note a recent report in Science Journal on ocean acidification featured on Radio 4’s World Tonight on 02.07, which hasn’t been getting (?) the attention it deserves. The main take-away points were a) 2 deg. limit was confirmed as unsafe and b) during ‘great dying’ event of 55 million years ago from O. A. rate of acidification was ‘at least’ 10 times less than today’s. If you missed it you can hear 6 minute feature here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b060bng2
    It starts at 34.40 mins. into programme: particularly chilling -and effective! -as scientist being interviewed loses her composure near the end, at where the oceans are heading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *