Prof Richard Somerville of the University of California is one of the world’s top climate experts. A lead author for the IPCC’s AR4, he is research professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He is also a big fan of John Tyndall, the 19th century scientific genius from Leighlinbridge, and (at least until Seán O’Brien hit the Ireland rugby squad) Carlow’s most famous son.
Somerville was in Dublin earlier tonight to deliver a lecture on the amazing legacy of scientific discoveries attributed to the dogged and ingenious research work carried out by Tyndall over a glittering career. With the international focus on climate science, the EPA was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication in 1861 of Tyndall’s landmark paper, entitled ‘On the Absorption and Radiation of Heat by Gases and Vapours’.
Tyndall was the first to prove experimentally the existence of the greenhouse effect. He is, in a very real sense, the father of climate science. It’s quite an achievement for an Irishman from a small rural town at the edge of the British Empire and whose father was a shoemaker.
Small wonder Prof Somerville accepted the EPA’s invitation to travel to Ireland to honour this scientist, many of whose numerous discoveries are still seen as crucial after a century and a half. However, Prof Somerville’s day was not entirely without incident. He was in fact the victim of an attempted mugging. He told the audience this evening that he was “still smarting” after the assault, in which he was battered repeatedly with (or rather, by) an unknown object, possibly a plank.
The incident took place in a studio somewhere off Dublin’s Stillorgan Road, and was witnessed by tens of thousands of people who happened to be tuned in to RTE Radio One this morning. This being Ireland, the assailant, instead of being brought to book for his crimes against science – and journalism – is instead the State’s highest paid broadcaster, with an open microphone through which to spin his Tea Party-inspired anti-science propaganda. (You can download a Podcast of the whole sorry piece here).
These are serious charges, yes, but Kenny, in the words of the Gardai, “has form” in this area, as your correspondent knows only too well. Back to this morning. The interview lasted some 25 minutes, with the first half a pretty uncontroversial discussion on Tyndall the man and the scientist, his amazing inventions and discoveries (it was he who first figured out why the sky appears blue).
Using the new CERN data that inferred the possibility that the speed of light may not be an absolute limit, Kenny put it to Somerville that, since science couldn’t guarantee certainty, maybe lots of other stuff is wrong too. The climate change, IPCC stuff. “You know, science doesn’t give you certainty”, Somerville responded. “If you insist on certainty, you have to go to theology and other places; science gives you a very near-certainty for some things. Does the Earth go round the sun? Well, I can’t tell you we know that 1000% for sure, but I promise you’ll never get a grant to do research to establish that it doesn’t go around”.
Somerville went on to patiently explain that: “for the basic understanding of climate change that I’ve described to you, the fact that the greenhouse effect keeps us warm, that we’ve added to the gases that cause it…that’s very unlikely to be overthrown, you’re talking about overthrowing basic physics, basic quantum mechanics, the work of thousands of scientists published in tens of thousands of (peer-reviewed) papers”.
You could hardly put it more clearly, or more plainly than that. But Pat would not be deterred by all these dreary facts; he is made of sterner stuff. “I’ll tell you what people worry about, you remember the row about the Himalayas, it turned out to be not as the (IPCC) panel was saying it was”. And if that wasn’t proof of scientific perfidy, Pat added that last week the Times Atlas of the world admitted to overstating the rate of Greenland ice melt in a press release promoting its latest edition.
Somerville, still polite, pointed out that the Times mistake was a publisher’s error, which was challenged by, ahem, scientists as soon as it was issued. As for the IPCC clangers, “a couple of errors were found in a document that is 3,000 pages long…there are errors in the telephone book for Dublin but that doesn’t mean you should abolish the phone company”. He added that none of the errors that came to light in the AR4 were actually in the physical sciences part of the report. Touché, Prof.
So that’s cleared up then, Pat? Not quite. “I’m drawing your attention to Prof Mojib Latif, a member of the Panel, who is now suggesting that a mini Ice Age may be on the way…that maybe they (IPCC) got that bit wrong”. Somerville, still polite to a fault, retorted that Latif (who he knows personally) is pointing out a possibility, not an error in the IPCC’s findings. Latif has his views, but they are just that, one man’s views.
“It’s a big mistake, you know there are outliers in every area of science; there are people with PhDs in retrovirus who don’t think HIV causes AIDS, but you’re making a mistake when you think those people should be given equal credence with the overwhelming consensus. Something like 97-98% of the people most actively publishing in this field espouse the IPCC’s basic conclusions”.
Every now and then, Somerville added, “an Einstein or a Darwin or a Galileo does come along and overthrow accepted wisdom, but I’ll tell you, having been a scientist for 50 years, that almost all the people who think they’re a Galileo are just wrong”.
Had enough yet, Pat? Hell no. Digging ever deeper into the rabbit hole of his own dearly held beliefs, he ploughed ahead where angels would have feared to tread. Kenny’s next interjection was to infer that there has been a huge increase in Arctic ice cover since 2007, quoting the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. “So do you know what I mean, there is always a fear that there is a rush to a consensus”.
“Yes, but this is a consensus that has been building for decades, and the points you are taking are largely, you might say, media misquotations of scientific results”. Kenny’s tone turned to salty indignation: “Is that not true…summer (Arctic) sea ice has increased by 409,000 square miles, up 26% since 2007”. Ha, slippery scientist, weasel your way out of that one! Somerville ruined another good rant with the banal facts that the September 2011 sea ice minimum is close to reaching the all-time low sea ice level recorded in 2007. So, it is slightly less bad this year than the worst year yet recorded. “So you really have to put this (ie. random quotations plucked from the web) in context, you really ought to talk to experts, because the headline is often wrong”.
This was beginning to look more and more like Rocky IV. Somerville keeps thumping Kenny around the head, but he staggers blindly on, both eyes swollen shut, refusing to just give it up. “When I see a name like the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, I kinda believe it”, Rocky slurred from the red corner. “But then you ought to go and read carefully, and talk to the people there and look at the context from which that titbit of a sentence is taken”.
Somerville had by now clearly rumbled that this was no ordinary media interview. Coming from the US, he is well experienced in the climate denier talking points and the industry-funded media misinformation machine. Guess he just hadn’t expected such bone-headed denialism right in the heart of the State broadcaster in an EU country.
“I’m afraid there is, you might say, a journalistic tendency – and I don’t want to insult your feelings (“oh no, feel free”, Kenny literally snarled back, mid-sentence) we talk about false balance in the (a) versus (b), he-said-she-said; if I say the world is round, go find the person who will say it is flat; I’m afraid that the small contrarian minority gets excessive headlines”. The rich irony was probably not lost on Somerville that he was making this very point about headline-making contrarians to a… headline-making contrarian.
Pat spat out his bloodied gumshield and came out swinging wildly: “I suppose people are confused when they read in newspapers a couple of decades ago that we were actually heading for a colder world not a warmer one, and now, two decades on, scientists say we’re heading for a warmer world; it’s kinda normal to wonder, well, are they going to change their minds AGAIN?”
Enough of the bullshit. Somerville was by now evidently thoroughly disgusted with the interview and the interviewer and dispensed with the niceties: “Let me tell you the truth about that statement; you deserve to hear it. Scientific research has been done on what was said in the 1970s about a coming Ice Age (Peterson et al, 2008). This study points out that that was a media frenzy. Those quotes are from Newsweek magazine, from newspapers…in the 1970s the overwhelming preponderance of scientific articles published were concerned with man-made warming, just as they are today, but there was some media hype, and now the myth exists to this day, and it is exactly that, a myth that scientists predicted an Ice Age in the 1970s”.
Game, set and match. Kenny the fearless broadcaster exposed over and over again as a mendacious, unrepentant spinner of myth and falsehood. Not once in the course of this interview did he take on board any of the myriad factual corrections he was humiliatingly and publicly subjected to.
Kenny went strangely quiet for a minute or two as Somerville explained how it is in the realm of politics to make the decisions on what steps societies take to address climate change. Science is there to provide a factual framework, not to make those decisions.
Having emptied his own quiver of myths, Kenny then adopted his favourite “here’s a text that asks why do scientists keep quoting consensus when real science is not decided by majority”. And of course, one of Pat’s own favourite red herrings conveniently turned up in a text: the Medieval Warm Period, when it was, gosh darn it, five degrees warmer!
Somerville again demolished the ‘consensus’ jibe, and quickly followed it with a one-two to floor the tired old ‘it was a bit warmer in parts of northern Europe a few centuries back, ergo global warming is a hoax’ line. Having worked the Rush Limbaugh playbook for virtually the entire interview, Kenny, in the last 60 seconds or so attempted to slip in a quick “reasonable man” exit strategy by suggesting that ‘if’ all this science does somehow turn out to be, well, factual, then maybe we ought to consider doing something to limit the risks.
My favourite line in this whole farce was when Somerville, intentionally or otherwise, said: “thank you again for having me on”. He was, quite literally, having him on alright.
I don’t usually have the opportunity to listen to daytime radio, but my spies were telling me that Kenny had back-pedalled from his virulent anti-climate science position back in 2009 and towards a more genuinely ‘sceptical’ journalistic tone. That, evidently, no longer applies. Kenny however met his match this morning, and was thoroughly and utterly debunked.
Transcripts of this shambles of an interview will, I imagine, be showing up as cautionary tales in the hazards of communicating climate science to the general public when you have to run the gauntlet of opinionated media ‘stars’, drunk on their own self-importance and well beyond giving a damn about anything beyond preening their egos and counting their money*.
Kenny is one year shy of retirement age next January. Any chance he might take a line from Lennon and McCartney and concentrate his considerable energies where he at least can’t do much harm:
“Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?”
* Author’s declaration of interest: I admit to not being a noted fan of Kenny (rest assured, the feeling is mutual)