This may not be a news flash to most people, but science is hard. Really, really hard. Just how tough was brought home when I recently attended an international congress on multiple sclerosis (MS). The event brought together some 8,000 senior researchers academics and medical specialists from all over the world to spend several frenetic days attending symposia, reviewing poster presentations and debating controversies and advances in our understanding of the disease.
MS is a progressive inflammatory neurological disease. Much is known about the condition, but nature yields its secrets grudgingly, and lots remain unresolved. However, as science advances, more and more incorrect ideas are tested and then discarded, leaving medics and researchers with the least wrong version of reality. That’s how science advances, be it in medicine, technology or, for that matter, climate science.
The conference took place in Boston, home of the original 18th century Tea Party, but it occurred to me that what was missing were the counter-protests by the ‘MS is a hoax’ brigade, those who insist that the scientific research is purely driven by personal greed and ego, or is entirely manipulated by pharma companies and is fundamentally corrupt and its output is junk science.
In the view of the anti-MS folks, someone who develops this crippling disease would be far better off at home with a couple of jars of homeopathic remedies and a nice vapour rub than all these new-fangled intravenous corticosteroids and assorted interferons.
Yes, some scientists are egotists, and some doctors are arrogant asses. Yes, Big Pharma is profit-driven, yet only an utter fool facing a diagnosis of MS would turn his back on the immense strides in disease understanding and treatment in recent years and decades in favour of quack remedies, no matter how ‘natural’ they may claim to be. By and large we trust medical scientists, for no better reason than we simply do not have enough expertise ourselves to either confirm or refute the ‘consensus’ conclusions.
That doesn’t mean slavish obedience. There is still plenty of room for questions, just not the really, really stupid questions that just waste everyone’s time. It may sound offensive to suggest we have no choice but to trust experts, but it’s true nonetheless. Every time you use the internet, a smartphone, get onto an aircraft, swallow a pill or drive across a bridge, you are putting your trust – or even your life – completely in the hands of countless thousands of anonymous experts.
Modern society is far too complex for any one person to develop hyperspecialism in more than a tiny handful of areas. Even within such a seemingly narrow field as MS, there is a vast spectrum of sub-divided expertise, with teams focusing separately on fields from disease biomarkers and MRI imaging to PET scanning and autoimmune disorders. High science is also highly competitive – new ideas are rigorously challenged and ruthlessly dispatched if they fail to withstand repeated scrutiny. Does pharma money influence this process? Undoubtedly, but while the medical profession and industry may have quite different motives, they are bound by a shared objective of delivering better patient outcomes, and so the painstaking process of medical discovery and innovation rumbles along relatively well.
What if, on the other hand, the streets of Boston had been clogged with angry protesters decrying medical corruption, what if Fox News and the Wall Street Journal were demonising the medics who attended the conference and endless MS denier blogs were restating a set of well-rehearsed talking points to bring the science of neurology into disrepute, while harassing and making legal and personal threats against the researchers?
Yet, despite all the uncertainties, despite the many research cul de sacs encountered, despite the various areas of disagreement between leading experts in the field, this branch of science and its practitioners isn’t dragged through the mud on a daily basis. Why? Quite simply, it’s because it doesn’t threaten, by dint of its findings, to upscuttle the world’s political and economic status quo.
In contrast with the relatively narrow field of neurology, climate science is a behemoth, drawing on scores of specialist fields across the physical sciences with physicists, biologists, chemists, meteorologists, computer modellers, systems specialists and many more besides. The work is unfathomably complex, even to most insiders.
For all its well-advertised shortcomings, the IPCC has managed the near-impossible task of synthesising and unifying the most relevant findings from across this vast spectrum of scientific endeavour and drawing conclusions in its Summary for Policymakers that even you and I can, if we are so minded, clearly grasp with no more than an hour or two of close attention. That is no mean achievement.
The five massive IPCC Assessment Reports published over the last 22 years build up into an ominous catalogue of a rapidly evolving global crisis. With every report, the margins of uncertainty diminish as the full scale of our climate imbroglio becomes ever clearer. It’s worth repeating that the basic science of climate change, and the fact that it poses a unique threat to life on Earth, has been well understood for at least half a century. In 1965, president, Lyndon Johnson told the US Congress: “this generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through . . . a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Since these scary scenarios were still, at that time, safely in the distant future, politicians and industry joined hands in making soothing noises about being ready and determined to act…at some indefinite future point, long after they were safely retired, of course.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the UN Climate Summit in New York earlier this week. His attendance among 130 or so world leaders was of course welcome. The flatulent ooze that emanated from his speech, less so. The world needs to show “conviction, clarity, courage and consistency” in its response to climate change, according to a Taoiseach who has displayed precisely none of the above on this issue in his first three years in office. The blather continued: “The hand of the future beckons, the clock ticks and we have no time to waste.” Back in 2009, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen told a UN conference in the same building in New York that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. He then flew home and did… nothing, just like Enda assuredly will this time.
While our Taoiseach was sounding off in downtown Manhattan, closer to home NewsTalk thought the Climate Summit an opportunity to re-run that hoary old chestnut called: ‘is climate change for real?’ Their vehicle to channel this nonsense is motormouth US radio presenter and Tea Bagger Michael Graham, who has a weekly teapot-stirring slot on The Right Hook. (Shortly before becoming president, Michael D. Higgins engaged in a public debate with Graham, and famously lambasted him as “a wanker” – the audio clip has been accessed over 2 million times on YouTube).
NewsTalk asked me to ‘debate’ the issue with Graham and I decided it was better to engage than to cede the floor. It’s a tactic many on the environmental side of the argument would strongly disagree with, but we must each make our own decisions, depending on the circumstances.
As Graham began rolling out some standard denier speaking points and straw man arguments, the slightly wicked thought occurred to me that, rather than trying to battle each talking point to a confused standstill, might it not be more revealing to find out what Graham actually understood about the science he was noisily dissing.
When I stated that global average surface temperatures could rise by a catastrophic 4C this century, Graham audibly and repeatedly scoffed at this preposterous notion (the not-so-Leftist World Bank’s own report, here, says we’re bang on track for +4C this century) so, I asked him instead if he knew what the global average surface temperature actually currently is? Long pause, followed by no, he was forced to admit, he had no idea.
Once knocked off his script, Graham’s complete lack of even the most basic understanding of the science shone through. And, as the guy used to dishing it out, he was not taking this very well at all. Graham then rolled out the latest denier meme about there being no global warming since the early 1990s, something, apparently, that all those IPCC reports and models ‘failed to predict’.
The global warming ‘pause’ myth has been debunked countless times. But rather than try to explain the mechanics of how heat is transferred from the earth’s surface and atmosphere to the deeper oceans (“when you’re explaining, you’re losing”) I reversed the question and asked Graham if he could tell me how many of the hottest years on the instrumental record (i.e. since 1850) have occurred since 2000? (um, no he couldn’t).
Obviously, if ‘warming has stopped’, you would reasonably expect there wouldn’t be a cluster of record-breakingly hot years to be found since 2000. The folks over at the US NOAA keep global instrumental records, and their Top 10 hottest years ever globally are, in descending order: 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, 2003, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2007, 2004 and 2012. That’s quite some ‘pause’ alright.
Graham got his foot stuck firmly in his mouth when I challenged him, repeatedly, to defend this ‘warming pause’ line in the face of irrefutable instrumental evidence, so he switched instead to wondering aloud how come, given the colossal amounts of CO2 being ejected into the atmosphere annually, temperatures aren’t rising even faster? (a reasonable question, as it happens; the IPCC have it covered).
I then asked Graham if he had any idea how long a typical molecule of CO2 persists in the atmosphere as a heat-trapping agent? (see further down for the detailed answer) “Uh, ah, I don’t know, and you don’t know”, was his reply. When pressed further, he added: “what I know are the thermometers, that’s what I know, and the thermometers aren’t reading the way the IPCC said they would read….” Et ecetera, et cetera. I’ll put this one down to genuine ignorance on Graham’s part.
The problem with carbon emissions is their persistence, at least as much as their volume. “Carbon dioxide emissions and their associated warming could linger for millennia”, according to a report in Nature Climate Change, in an article headlined ‘Carbon is Forever’. For every 100 molecules of CO2 released into the atmosphere today, it takes between 20-200 years for 65-80% of them to be drawn down, principally into the oceans. The remaining 20-35% will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat for many thousands of years into the future.
Anyone familiar with the exponential function will be aware that cumulative problems (like atmospheric CO2) tend, well, to accumulate. And they get very big, very quickly. This year’s 35-40 billion tonnes joins last year’s, and the last 50 years’ emissions in ratcheting up temperatures (and acidifying the world’s oceans in the process – this WMO report confirms ocean acidification now at its fastest rate in 300 million years). (please note my sources here: peer-reviewed papers from top specialist journals and an official report from an international science agency, not links to fact-free ‘news’ reports in the Daily Mail).
The debate ran on for a full 20 minutes. I don’t know Michael Graham personally, but he sounded mightily unhappy by the time George Hook brought proceedings to a close. It may even have been keeping him from his sleep. And sure enough, at 5.15am the following morning, he posted this 1,280-word riposte, complete with my mug shot, with the catchy heading: ‘Shouldn’t an “environmental journalist” know more about science than a dopey talk show host?”.
Here, Graham engages in faux humility, with his aw schucks folks, why did he have to beat up on poor ol’ me line. He adds to the guy-next-door effect with: “But I’m sure that in the heat of an ad libbed radio debate I got some stuff wrong too.” That is putting it mildly.
By paragraph 3, I’ve been lumped in, inevitably, with “climate zealots”. Para 4 sees a long-since corrected typo in a supporting document to the 2007 AR4 report (Himalayan melt by 2350, not 2035) being wheeled out. Again.
Blogging in the middle of the night is never a great idea. Graham opens strongly, by accusing me of being “wrong during our debate on specific, glaring facts, like the warmest year on record…” Now that’s a zinger – if he’s right. According to Graham, 1934 was the warmest year on record. If you check the NOAA list above, you’ll note 1934 does not appear anywhere in the global top 10. 1934 was the warmest year in the US, alright, but the US accounts for 2% of the surface of the Earth. The source Graham links to for this, Bloomberg, is accurate. It says: ‘NASA has revised climate data to show 1934 as the hottest year on record in the US, ousting 1998…’. Graham was so busy copy-n-pasting he failed to notice the phrase “in the US”. Oh dear, this is what happens when you double down on dumb.
A caller to The Right Hook asked if Al Gore hadn’t said the Antarctic would be melted by 2013 (this, of course, is nonsensical). In 2008, after the record-breaking drop in Arctic sea ice extent in 2007, Al Gore did indeed suggest that, if that rate of decline were to continue, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer within 10 years. He may or may not be right about the precise timing, but he’s on the money about the clear trajectory of Arctic collapse.
For the record, Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is entirely correct to be raising alarm about the ongoing disastrous retreat of Arctic sea ice (2014 is the 6th lowest summer extent on record) so quite what point Graham was trying to make in his midnight ramblings, I’m still unclear. Graham’s blog is full of hyperlinks, but when you follow them, it’s t o the usual denier factory sources, including the Daily Mail, Wattsupwiththat and Murdoch’s business rag, the once-respected Wall Street Journal.
Graham name-checked the IPCC numerous times in his radio interview. I searched in vain on his blog post to find a single reference that links to a primary scientific source, such as NASA, the IPCC itself, NOAA, NSIDC etc. Not one. Instead, he quotes serial liars like the disgraced ex-bank chief Matt Ridley to prop up his piece. And of course, everyone’s favourite eco-spoofer, Bjorn Lomborg gets a link too.
Graham explains: “Notice the embedded links for my information. Notice they aren’t “IHateLiberals.com” I’m reporting what organizations like the New York Times, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal have reported. Mr. Gibbons will point you to other sources. Who’s right? What’s really going on? Don’t take my word, or the word of the oddly uniformed “journalist.” Just think for yourself”.
That is excellent advice, and a pity Mr Graham couldn’t take it on board himself. I checked back over his blog to find the New York Times and BBC links he described above. They’re not there (I did warn earlier about the hazards of blogging in the middle of the night). The “other sources” I will point you to are, whenever possible, primary scientific sources. Graham will never point you to a primary source, mainly, I imagine, because he doesn’t use them, preferring instead to re-heat myths cooked up by serial dissemblers like David Rose .
Having already given an on-air masterclass in how poorly he understands climate science, Graham took to his blog to drive this point home: “Greenhouse gases (including water vapor) make up less than 2 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Humans emit less than 4 percent of that 2 percent. So for us to get GHG levels down in any meaningful way, we have to drastically cut our little slice of the GHG pie”.
The link for this waffle is to a right wing ‘think tank’ called the Manhattan Institute. And it’s a favourite sleight of hand by deniers. The global carbon cycle is huge, but it’s a cycle, i.e. it’s in balance. Atmospheric CO2 levels have remained in the narrow range of 180-280 ppm (parts per million) for at least the last 800,000 years, and probably as far back as 3-4 million years.
Anthropogenic interference in this cycle over the last 150 years has thrown it wildly out of balance. Today, there is 40% more CO2 in the global atmosphere (400ppm, and rising) than at the highest level ever recorded prior to 1850. What Graham calls “our little slice of the GHG pie” is again simply putting his science ignorance up in lights. We’ve known since the mid-19th century that the trace gas CO2 is the critical greenhouse gas. More CO2 also begets more water vapour, hence still more warming.
While CO2 is indeed a trace gas (0.04% of total atmosphere), without it, average surface temperatures would plummet from their current c.15C to minus 18C. Nitrogen (77%) and oxygen (21%) have no atmospheric heat-trapping characteristics whatever. When you fiddle with CO2 (and related trace GHGs, like methane and nitrous oxide) you are literally fiddling with the thermostat for all life on Earth.
So, while the radio debate didn’t go so well for him, and his follow-up blog is risible, Graham did at least manage towards the end to inject some of that trademark Tea Party anti-libberul, um, humour: “they’re not going to agree to keep cooking on cow patty fires so EU liberals can feel good about themselves. Which means even there’s even less “magic unicorn wind” to distribute per person”.
I opened this post by pointing out just how hard science is. Attacking science, on the other hand, is so easy that any idiot with access to a microphone can do it. Effective science communication is hard too. Given the desperate gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, making it as hard as possible for climate deniers to flood the airwaves with misinformation, and calling them (and the media outlets who facilitate them) out at every turn seems to me like genuinely useful – and occasionally, enjoyable – work.