Heavy weather for climate science

You would think that people whose business is the weather would be pretty informed about climate change. The reality is a great deal more complex. In the US, weathermen, for many the very public, trusted face of science, are split down the middle, with a prominent rump speaking out vociferously against human forcings driving climate change (assuming they even accept it’s occurring in the first place).

John Coleman is one of the most trusted faces on US television. He founded The Weather Channel back in the early ’80s and is something of an institution. Therefore, when Coleman in November 2007 blogged: “It is the greatest scam in history,” he began. “I am amazed, appalled and highly offended by it. Global Warming: It is a SCAM”, he became an instant (septuagenarian) poster boy for the climate denier lobby.

Global warming “is not something you ‘believe in,’” he wrote in his article. “It is science; the science of meteorology. This is my field of life-long expertise.” Impressive, if a little light on facts. Coleman’s only professional qualification is a degree in journalism earned 50 or so years ago from the University of Illinois. Coleman has spent so long in front of the cameras he actually believes he has become an expert. His expertise does not, however, extend to being able to tell the difference between the related but entirely separate scientific fields of meteorology (the study of weather) and climate science or climatology (the study of climate systems over time). Coleman’s contradictions are expertly teased out in a recent in-depth article for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Few people actually know a real-live scientist, so who do we depend on instead for scientific guidance? Here in Ireland, don’t expect any help whatever from our media, either broadcast or print. If they’re not outright hostile to climate science, what you get instead is a parody of journalism, with a parade of blow-hard columnists and broadcasters, fresh from their gruelling 20 minutes surfing Google “researching” some climate denialist lines and then regurgitating them to the unsuspecting public as “asking the hard questions”.

There has truly never been an instrument as efficient as the Internet in allowing us to prop up our prejudices and preconceptions without ever disturbing them with some awkward facts that don’t fit into the jelly-mould.

Which brings me to Saturday week last, when I was among a number of guest speakers at the Meteorological Society’s ‘Weather & Climate Conference’ in the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. Speakers included Drs Gerard Fleming and Seamus Walsh of Met Eireann, Prof Pat Goodman of DIT and Gillian Whelan of UCC.

My contribution was entitled ‘From Denial to Despair – effectively communicating climate change’. That was the title I’d chosen when asked six months earlier to contribute. A lot has happened since, most notably the Three Cs – Copenhagen, Climategate electronic cigarette fifty-one and Cold (weather), so I decided to throw a critical eye over Irish media coverage of the climate debate

What I didn’t know was that there was a Sunday Times reporter somewhere among the 120 or so attendance. She contacted me nearly a week later to do an interview arising (she told me she had already put my ‘charges’ to Kevin Myers and P. Kenny). All’s fair in the public domain. Clearly someone in the Sunday Times thought this an excellent opportunity to do some shit-stirring, and what followed was an enormous splash on page 3 of the paper’s main news section, wittily headed: ‘A little warming under the collar‘, with a huge pic of Kenny and an iceberg.

The Sunday Times piece was a pointed amalgam of quotes, lines from articles and even a light-hearted comment I posted in response to a blog, but the object was pretty clear: the knife was slipped in in the form of an inset article on the ‘recovery’ of Arctic ice mass. Ostensibly, the article seems fine, pointing out that scientists point out this ice recovery is a weather event, “with little relevance for long-term climate change”, but the final paragraph twists the meaning right around, by emphasising that “such caution contrasts with the warnings issued by scientists in 2007 when the north polar ice cap suffered a spectacular melt”. Subtle, yes, but unmistakable: them shifty scientists are once again trying to mislead us.

As ever, Pat Kenny gets the last word in the main hatchet, sorry, article. “I remember a couple of decades ago when they were predicting the the Ice Age was coming and that the 1980s would be a decade of famine”. Well I remember being told round about then that Slade were bigger than the Beatles, but that didn’t make it so either. Here’s a guy who truly can’t tell the difference between a couple of articles in Time magazine and peer-reviewed science. But fair play to Pat, his latest “Pete Doherty moment” makes my case more eloquently than I possibly could.

Happily, there is intelligent life beyond the media fish-tank. Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, recently published a provocative report entitled ‘Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production‘. Naturally, given the profound gravity of its topic material, and the fact that it fails entirely to offer any quick-and-painless “solutions”, the document, authored by physicist David Korowicz, has been widely ignored by the mainstream media.

I am pleased to have the opportunity in today’s Irish Times to at least in part remedy that deficit and bring a synopsis of Korowicz’s work to a wider audience. This is my first return to these pages since my own column concluded on February 4th last. However briefly, it’s good to be back.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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  • Eamonn Moran

    As a lay person I found the following argument made in your Irish times Article a little difficult to accept.
    ‘For developed countries such as Ireland, relying on just-in-time delivery of food, digital money and complex information systems, “starvation and social breakdown could evolve rapidly”, Korowicz warns.’

    That Social breakdown could happen rapidly would not be too difficult to comprehend but Starvation seems a little beyond the pale.

    If Ireland was forced into protectionism (no exports or imports), then i think that being able to provide enough food would for the population would be possible.
    I think the key question would be; Can we produce enough food without the use of Oil based fertilizers to sustain 4.8 million people.

    I think the answer to that is yes.

    Do you envisage the same scenario as occurred in the famine where we would continue to export food while large portions of the population starved?

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    @Eamonn
    I can see why it seems an odd idea, a “food island” running out of food? First, of course, oil and natural gas are essential both for mechanised agriculture and for fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and for transporting goods and supplies to and from market. Without these, and the machinery to plant, maintain and harvest them, there will be a massive short-term food shortage (assuming we can’t import food, a very real possibility).

    Back in famine times, pretty much everyone was a farmer, knew how to grow food, and could get by on a pretty meagre diet. Today, the average Irish farmer is in his mid-60s, there are barely 100,000 full-time farmers (2.5% of the population?).

    The idea that this tiny, ageing group could, without massive help from fossil fuels, feed the 98% of us that wouldn’t know one end of a carrot from the other is fanciful. Yes, we’ll have to re-learn farming skills, many of which have been completely lost, but this takes time, and people will want food today, tomorrow and the day after, and are not going to be able to wait while we train a new generation of farmers agricultural methods that haven’t been deployed since before World War 2. So yes, I think starvation is a very real risk.

    Social breakdown also threatens food production, as has been seen in the parts of Africa in particular afflicted with ongoing wars. Crops and livestock are stationary and difficult to defend against intruders or raiders. People who do successfully grow food are going to be at risk from those who are prepared to do anything to get that food.

    Disruption on the scale outlined in the Feasta report means we cannot assume either the Gardai or Defence Forces will be available or effective in maintaining law and order. It has been estimated that a city like Dublin would start to disintegrate into widespread looting and disorder within three or four days of the supermarket shelves being emptied.

  • Lenny B

    John, great to see you back in your “old spot” in the Irish Times today, you’ve been sorely missed. Too bad it’s only a once-off. Missed your mugging at the weekend, as I don’t buy the Murdoch Times. Don’t take it too seriously, they pulled an even dirtier hatchet job on Duncan Stewart in the same edition, so at least we know who the real baddies are, eh?

    Depressing stuff from Feasta, but thanks to your piece today, at least people are talking about it – a nice, cheery break from all that Nama shenanigans, you might say. From everything I read, looks like it’s nearly time to think about “heading for the hills”!

  • denis

    Has anyone read “Gusher of Lies” by Robert Bryce—-delusions of alternative energy independence.
    I would like to hear some opinions voiced.

  • Peter Walsh

    John,

    By the purest fluke I happened to pick up the Sunday Times; having read the depressing article it confirmed me in my prejudice against said journal! Great to see you make even a guest return appearance in the I.T.

    I would just like to raise two key issues that I feel have not been properly addressed in the current ‘debate’. These are a) how an understanding of Risk Assessment will delineate the clear difference between ‘scepticism’ versus ’denialism’, and, b) the contingent nature of scientific research where uncertainty, probability and the precautionary principle must form its guiding principles.

    Risk assessment has regard to two critical elements:

    • the probability of an event occurring, and,

    • the consequences that would probably / inevitably flow from such an event occurring.

    This is how a true sceptic would approach the issue of climate change:

    ‘I do not believe the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change is correct. However, given the possibility –however minute -that I might be wrong in my judgement of the available evidence and given what might be at stake should the opposing view turn out to be substantially correct, I believe it would be prudent that measures be adopted on the assumption that these negative impacts will occur in the absence of these measures being adopted -at the very least until we have a clearer, more definitive picture available to us.’

    (N.B.: this statement would still hold true even if ‘consensus’ was substituted by a ’significant minority of peer-reviewed scientific opinion’ –given what could be / most likely is at stake.)

    This is how a denialist would approach the same issue:

    ‘I do not believe the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change is correct. In fact I am fully confident that there is no possibility that this could be happening, despite the concerns raised by the majority of peer-reviewed, professional scientists in the area of climatology and related sciences. So everyone: eat, drink and be merry! I’m right and that’s all that needs to be said.’

    There cannot be the slightest doubt that regardless of their protestations of ‘intellectual rigour’ etc. (e.g.: C. James’ invocation of Montaigne the arch sceptic of the Enlightenment in his defence) the following highly influential individuals in the newsmedia have in recent months come out unequivocally in the ‘denialist’ camp:

    Pat Kenny, Clive James, Simon Hoggart, Henry Kelly, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Geraldine Kennedy, Kevin Myers (that’s all I can think of up-front).

    All intelligent -and even highly intelligent -people and all demonstrating a complete failure to understand the basics of risk assessment and the central importance of the precautionary principle, among other things, in scientific research.
    Montaigne must be rolling in his grave!

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    @Peter
    very well said. I can see myself ‘borrowing’ your very concise definition of the difference between a true sceptic (aren’t we all?) and a denier for some future battle on this front.

    For the record, I dropped a note to the ST journo who penned last Sunday’s piece. In it, I quoted a well-known US scientist, Steve Easterbrook, who has had some very salient observations on the whole “Climategate” circus, and in particular, has socked it to George Monbiot for his ill-judged beating up on Dr Phil Jones of the CRU. Below is a short sample:

    “Some people have suggested that scientists need to wise up, and learn how to present themselves better on the public stage. Indeed, the Guardian published an editorial calling for the emergence of new leaders from the scientific community who can explain the science.

    “This is naive and irresponsible. It completely ignores the nature of the current wave of attacks on scientists, and what motivates them. No scientist can be an effective communicator in a world where those with vested interests will do everything they can to destroy his or her reputation.

    “The scientific community doesn’t have the resources to defend itself in this situation, and quite frankly it shouldn’t have to. What we really need is for newspaper editors, politicians, and business leaders to start acting responsibly, make the effort to understand what the science is saying, make the effort to understand what really driving these swiftboat-style attacks on scientists, and then shift the discourse from endless dissection of scientists’ emails onto useful, substantive discussions of the policy choices we’re faced with.”

  • Peter Walsh

    John,
    Borrow away!