The meteorologist and the scourge of climate ‘over-alarmism’

Back in March, there was quite a kerfuffle when RTE PrimeTime tried to set up a ‘debate’ about the reality of climate change by initially loading a panel 3:1 in favour of the 3% ‘skeptical’ position that rejects or downplays the reality and gravity of man-made climate change. Under pressure, specifically from An Taisce, PrimeTime relented, eventually giving the 3% position a mere 50% of the panel slots.

In the course of a lengthy posting after the event I described one of the panellists, retired UCD meteorologist (as distinct from ‘climatologist’) Prof Ray Bates as “a bona fide scientist but one with a long track record in ‘low balling’ the risks and talking up the ‘benefits’ of climate change. Bates is perfectly entitled to his views, which are no doubt earnestly held; it just needs to be pointed out that his views are his own, but would place him in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science.”

Bates was not best pleased. On April 4th, I received the following email, which he also cc’d to PrimeTime editor, Donagh Diamond, reporter Robert Shortt and correspondent, George Lee. He clearly wanted this exchange to be as public as possible.

Hi John,

I’m not in the habit of reading blogs, but it has been drawn to my attention that my name has appeared in a blog of yours commenting on the RTE Prime Time programme of 18 March:

Naturally, this arouses one’s curiosity.

I wonder if you could possibly back up a couple of things you have said about me:

1) Could you give me a reference to some instance in which I have talked up the benefits of climate change?

2) On what grounds do you describe me as a climate sceptic?

Regards,

Ray.

The questions clearly merited a response, so I took a few days and replied, on April 8th, in some depth and detail (see below). As a professional courtesy, I did not cc the email to third parties, preferring to put the points privately initially to Bates and allow him to respond, privately or publicly, whichever way he decided.

That was over five weeks ago, and to date, no reply, not even an acknowledgement of receipt of my email has been forthcoming. The matter might well have rested at that, until yesterday’s Irish Times, which devoted a large chunk of its op-ed page to more of the same-old-same-old by Bates under the lurid (not to mention tautological) heading: ‘Warning of over-alarmist’ stance on climate risk’.

The author’s apparent lack of respect for many of the world’s top practising climate scientists and for the highly complex processes used to develop IPCC consensus positions shines through this article, as he picks and chooses the bits of the IPCC report that he “approves of” while dismissing out of hand much of the thrust of the 2nd Working Group (WG2) Report. Bates also floats a favourite red herring of the skeptical lobby by decrying the ‘failure’ of climate models to account for “the warming hiatus”. And, while decrying the inaccuracy and sloppiness of everyone bar himself, Bates attacks this report as follows:

“Multiple tipping points” – a concept that is not endorsed by the report of the first working group even under the most pessimistic of model projections for the 21st century – are freely referred to.”

Good point, except, as Paul Price points out, it’s not true.

The phrase “Multiple tipping points” is not “freely referred to” by WG2. The phrase is used precisely ONCE in the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) and ZERO times in the Technical Summary. In the draft SPM the IPCC says:

“The precise levels of climate change sufficient to trigger tipping points (thresholds for abrupt and irreversible change) remain uncertain, but the risk associated with crossing multiple tipping points in the earth system or in interlinked human and natural systems increases with rising temperature (medium confidence).”

This, Price adds, is “sound science and far from alarmist”.

“As with his shaky ‘hiatus’ ‘evidence’ and his overlooking of the stark warnings in Working Group 1′s report, this example illustrates Bates’ bias toward low balling climate risk despite the abundant, and alarming, evidence given by both the WG1 and WG2 reports”, Price adds.

What most informed observers of the rigorous (if not tortuous) process by which large panels of expert reviewers argue line by line over each section of the report before it’s agreed is that this process is innately conservative. In fact, one of the strongest criticisms of the IPCC AR process is that it constantly lags behind ‘real world’ scientific advances.

Also, it is deeply cautious and conservative by simple dint of having to find consensus not just among thousands of scientists, but also among government and diplomatic representatives of the 154 participating countries. When you consider these include petro-states like Russia, Canada and Saudi Arabia, it’s not hard to imagine the level of political pressure being brought to bear on participants to downplay climate risks and impacts. All of which makes Bates’ claims even more fanciful.

Here’s a link to the full list of AR5 Authors and Review Editors – over 800 in all. Have a look in particular at the institutions represented in WG2 – including the US Geological Survey, Goethe University, Polish Academy of Sciences, Stanford University, King’s College, London, US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, South African Space Agency and the Russian Academy of Science. In fact, there’s even a representative from that notoriously climate alarmist corporation, Exxon Mobil on the WG2.

But, according to Bates, this bunch are really just hand-waving alarmists.

“…The (WG2) report conveys no corresponding sense of caution. The most pessimistic climate model projections are taken as if they were completely reliable and are applied to deriving the most alarming impacts in various sectors”.

The WG2 has precisely 309 Contributing Authors and Review Editors, all with internationally recognised expertise in the highly specialised fields of ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’. Imagine just how large any one person’s ego would have to be to casually dismiss this huge array of practising (and publishing) experts as being simply wrong, wrong, wrong.

So what, you might ask, is Ray Bates’ actual point? Well, it appears to all boil down to the desire to protect Irish agriculture (yes, agriculture) from any possible negative effects of pesky GHG emissions controls. In his own words:

“The over-alarmist stance of the second working group’s report should not induce the public or our legislators into supporting blanket policy options affecting agriculture that serve neither the interests of this country nor those of the wider world.”

Interestingly, Bates’ performance on that PrimeTime back in March was another billet doux to the unique entitlement of the Irish beef and dairy sectors to produce as much meat and butter as the Chinese middle classes can eat, and devil take the hindmost when it comes to the massive carbon footprint that both industrial beef and dairy farming entail.

But here’s the thing. The IFA and ICMSA already have well-oiled PR machinery working around the clock to make sure that climate legislation doesn’t affect agriculture, and that, presumably, when we fail to meet our legally mandated GHG reductions targets as a result, said organisations will throw their hands in the air in faux surprise and demand that ordinary taxpayers cough up the multi-million euro fines. But to be fair, that’s their job (whether ordinary farmers will thank their leadership in the longer term for their coyness on climate change is another matter entirely).

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 all very much includes our agriculture sector.

Here’s what I wrote to Ray Bates on April 8th:

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

Hi Ray

Thanks for your email. It reminds me that our correspondence now stretches some six years. I still have the cutting of the Irish Times letter you wrote about one of my early columns on climate; you were correcting my interpretations of some data, as I recall, but in a constructive way, which I certainly appreciated at that time.

First off, I haven’t cc’d this email to various RTE staff, as I’m not sure what this has to do with them. The statements I made were on my blog, not on RTE. Whatever difference of opinions or emphasis you and I may have, I’d hope we can resolve between ourselves.

Let me take them in sequence:

1) In the PrimeTime debate, you focused to what I would regard as inordinate degree on Irish agriculture; late in the debate, long after agriculture had been discussed, you brought the discussion straight back, stating: “climate models are projecting that by the end of the century, most of the warming will be concentrated in the southern Mediterranean countries, they’ll become very dry and hot in the summer whereas the Irish climate will be relatively much less affected, so agricultural capacity in European countries is going to be greatly diminish because of climate change…whereas the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland so if we have to adhere to the 80-95% (GHG) reduction targets we won’t be able to do this…Irish food output per unit of output has a very low carbon footprint…”

First, a question: as a meteorologist: can I ask why your overriding focus in that PrimeTime programme appeared to be on agriculture? Granted, food security is important, so are many other topics, but none of these warranted much comment from you. Why?

My second observation is that most climate scientists I’ve spoken with – including a lengthy recent interview with Prof Michael Mann of Penn State University – state that the overwhelming imperative for civilisation is that we urgently, drastically and permanently reduce GHG emissions, including emissions from agriculture. Irish agriculture produces huge quantities of beef and dairy products. Neither of these are, as you know, in any way “low carbon”. I thought you might have suggested that we need to adopt our diets to reduce meat and dairy consumption, not just to cut GHGs, but also to reduce obesity and heart disease. You could have pointed out that the ‘western diet’ is driving the clearance of rain forests, desertification of agricultural land from over-grazing, etc. but instead, you chose what I see as ’special pleading’ that Irish agriculture be allowed to shirk its GHG reductions commitments.

You were the sole scientist on that panel, yet where did you set out the utterly dire consequences of allowing global average temperatures to spiral +2, +4 or more this century? (RCP8.5) Is it that you don’t accept that is likely? What I personally find astonishing is that these projections fall within the BAU, i.e. we can and mostly likely will achieve these in the coming decades to century, thanks largely to the public being unaware that this is where business-as-usual takes us, and more specifically, that climate change of that magnitude will cause far-reaching, devastating consequences, including setting in train irreversible sea level rises for centuries into the future, mass coastal abandonment, huge drops in global agricultural output, water stresses, etc. etc. In this ghastly set of scenarios, which as the IPCC report put it: “increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts”.

So, pitching to an Irish audience that “it’s important that we maintain agricultural production in Ireland” when you are referring to highly GHG-intensive forms of agriculture, is to me, surprising. The fact that you also believe that Irish agriculture will be “relatively unaffected” until the end of the 21st century by climate change I also find surprising. I’m sure you’re aware of the work by Dr Stephen Flood et al. of NUIM, specifically his paper: ‘Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture’. Its summary states:

“Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The report projects the total economic costs of climate change in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century. This figure represents 8.2% of the current contribution of the agricultural sector to the national economy annually, and at the upper level is greater than the Harvest 2020 targeted increase of €1.5 billion in primary output” (my emphasis). This of course is only to mid-century. We can expect impacts to accelerate later in the century, as warming intensifies.

Let me contrast this with your PrimeTime statement, inter alia: “the Irish agricultural capacity will be relatively unaffected…”. I’m surprised that you never sought to point out that agriculture everywhere (including Ireland) is highly vulnerable to climate change, as the expert evidence has shown. Instead, as I saw it, you “talked up” the (relative) benefits of Ireland being “relatively unaffected” by climate change this century and being able to take advantage of the (presumed) collapse in central and southern European agriculture to export food to these devastated regions. As I’ve demonstrated above, I don’t believe your opinions here concur with the ICARUS research work, which, unless I’m mistaken, is the benchmark in Ireland for measuring likely climate impacts on our agriculture.

Having looked at your very impressive list of Scientific Publications  I couldn’t find a single paper there that dealt with the impacts of climate change on agriculture or food security (if I’m mistaken, of course, please feel free to correct me). Therefore, am I right in saying this is not an area in which you are a published expert? Why then all the focus on agriculture and climate change/food security? I’m aware this is a topic you regularly speak on. As a non-specialist in this field, would it not be prudent to reference the ICARUS research and the clear warnings set out therein for agriculture in a warming world, specifically including Irish agriculture? Or even to caution that your views may be at variance with the ICARUS research regarding Irish agriculture.

2) I stated that your views “would place (you) in or adjacent to the 3% “sceptical” view within mainstream climate science”. That is not the same as calling you a ‘climate sceptic’. For instance, I understand that you have spoken and corresponded recently in support of the view that there has been a ’15 year pause in global warming’, i.e. little or no warming trend since 1998. I was very surprised to hear this attributed to you, but the sources were unequivocal that this is your stated position. Perhaps you could, without going into tremendous depth, clarify this?

Ray, I’m well aware that you are a scientist of the highest repute, and we’ve enjoyed a cordial exchange of views over the years, including agreeing to disagree on a number of occasions. You got to express your angle on climate change to several hundred thousand people via that Prime Time programme; I got to reach maybe a few hundred via my humble blog, so Advantage to you on that front! I didn’t write to RTE management or the BAI complaining about the broadcast; I made some – very brief – references to your contribution in the midst of a 3,200 word posting looking at the overall framing of this “debate”. I’m a little disappointed that you chose to involve three people from RTE, none of whom I know or have engaged with, into your complaint about my blog posting. That is of course your right; feel free if you so wish to circulate this response to RTE, but if you do so, please do so in full, so context is not inadvertently lost.

To conclude: both of us know that climate change is a huge problem and both of us presumably agree that BAU is simply not an option. I think we could both agree that the Irish media largely ignores this story, and when it is covered, often focuses on dissent rather than consensus. As a journalist, citizen and parent, I feel compelled to do what I can to try to improve our understanding and communication of climate change, and will happily work with anyone to that shared end. Unlike you, I am not an expert, nor do I pretend to be. I occupy that ill-defined niche of a science communicator.

There’s a bigger fight here to be waged than you and I exchanging volleys of emails. I’d like to believe that we’re both ‘good faith actors’, i.e. we’re both broadly on the same side, seeking the same outcome – a safer future for all and urgent steps towards climate stabilisation for the sake of posterity, both for humanity and for the natural world. You may well find my ‘advocacy’ approach frustrating, and I admit to finding your approach at times similarly frustrating, but relative to what we agree on, these are or should be trifles.

Finally Ray, have you reviewed the AAAS publication, ‘What We Know ? I’d love to hear you step up and talk about the overwhelming consensus among top published scientists and academies about the need for urgent, immediate no-excuses action, while we still can, to arrest climate change. When the AAAS states: “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts”, I think that is far, far more important than Harvest 2020. Don’t you?

When the AAAS states: “The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do”, I don’t see how lobbying for sectoral special interests to be exempted from contributing to the urgent, critical task of GHG reductions could possibly be more important than us all working together, in good faith, to avoid, at all costs, “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes”.

Ray, if you want to meet up for a chat at any time, I’m happy to do so. I’m not deliberately trying to be on your case here, but I do hope you’ll reflect, rather than just react, to at least some of the foregoing. I’m assuredly wrong from time to time, and hope I’m big enough to accept that and to learn from it and try and be less wrong next time. But I’m not sure I’m entirely wrong about this.

Sincerely

John Gibbons

8/4/14

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Postscript: At exactly the same time Bates was taking the ‘over-alarmist’ professional climate experts who warn about possible tipping points to task, stunning news was breaking of “unstoppable, irreversible” accelerated western Antarctic collapse.

The over-alarmists this time came in the shape of two papers due for publication this week in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. “This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”

“The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the melting… Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” glaciologist, Dr Eric Rignot said in a NASA news conference. “It has passed the point of no return.”

Disgracefully, NASA climatologists seemed to show little concern for what some might well regard as the real threat here: what possible impacts their scare-mongering research findings could have on Harvest 2020!

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

    Hi John,

    That is a comprehensive and
    very tactful response to Bates’s grumbling note. I have always found it
    worrying listening to him on the climate change question; he seems decidedly
    ambiguous about the dangers and to say that he has a “track record in
    low-balling the risks of climate change” seems pretty accurate to me.

    I was immediately struck by his pointed
    remarks on Prime Time about protecting agriculture from the policy actions for
    tackling climate change and I wondered whose belly he was trying to tickle. You
    were quite right to question him about this.

    Agriculture generates a whopping one-third
    of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, and, with the Harvest 2020 plan, the
    government hopes to radically increase production in the dairy and beef sectors,
    greatly increasing these emissions. Obviously, such plans are incompatible with
    what Ireland has to do to eliminate emissions and safeguard everyone’s future, and they will not help provide food for an ever-increasing world population.

    So why was Ray Bates low-balling the risks
    to Irish agriculture from climate change? I would like to hear his response on
    this and hope he can put our minds at ease. Otherwise we might just suspect he
    has some vested interest in Irish agriculture being let off the hook, when for
    our sakes and for future generations agriculture must be transformed to remove
    its impact on climate and also to make it climate-proof.

    Why he demanded an explanation from you and
    shared his letter with some key RTÉ staff is taking things a bit far, in my
    opinion, and smacks of the modus operandi of climate change deniers, whose goal
    is always to thwart and confound the work of genuinely concerned climate
    activists. If you read back over your last few posts, John, and
    the rake of comments they generated, what is obvious is the amount of time and
    effort you put in to responding to vexatious arguments; time you could
    put to more productive use, I’m sure. Perhaps you should stop responding to deniers
    altogether and screen out their contributions. They contribute nothing and make
    you and all of us feel the situation is even more hopeless than it is. Which is
    what they want us to think as they’re only interested in business as usual, which is what has brought us to our dire predicament and will tip us into the abyss.

    Instead of pouring money into ramping up
    the beef and dairy sectors and turning them into industrial giants to the benefit
    of the largest farmers only, Ireland needs instead to focus on trimming down beef and
    dairy to niche activities and replacing them with tillage and
    horticulture, using modern permacultural disciplines such as agro-forestry. This is where the focus of agricultural research should be now, and all related disciplines. We’re in a life or death situation and we need the best minds in the country to turn their attention to it. It is incredible to see the acres of newsprint being devoted to relatively insignificant matters in the Dept of Justice or An Garda Síochána when this colossal existential crisis is unfolding slowly and surely and putting our lives and all future lives at risk.

    Harvest 2020 is aimed at selling beef and
    dairy to thriving economies such as China’s which have a growing taste for
    western luxuries. But to feed the world’s growing billions in the years ahead
    is going to require turning all available arable land to producing cereals and vegetables. If the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, really wants to do
    something of lasting benefit, and I’m sure that he does, then this is where his
    focus must lie, and not in pandering to big farmers and the agro-industrial
    corporations at the cost of small, mixed-farming Irish families and a healthy
    environment.

    About fifteen or twenty years ago the
    government decided to start closing down agricultural colleges as the numbers
    applying for courses were falling. I felt this decision was premature as I
    envisaged a growing need for expertise in tillage and horticulture in the future.
    Sure enough, the people now believe the future does lie in farming and in
    the last ten years there has been a huge resurgence in interest in careers in
    agriculture. Only the government believes the future of farming is large-scale,
    industrial and oil-based, but that kind of farming is on its last legs and will
    be wiped out by the next (and final) oil crisis, which is just around the corner.

  • johngibbons

    Thanks for the in-depth and considered reply, Coilin. Hard to say if any of this actually does any concrete good, but feel strongly that people who are given privileged access to communications channels (and the assumption of authority/credibility) ought to be held to a high standard of accountability. JG

  • Ruairí Weldon

    Colin, I would be more than surprised if John took the least notice of your advice to screen out the contributions of the so called ‘deniers’. If you think censorship is such a bright idea,why don’t you set up your own web site,where a screening device would keep your pure global warming ideology uncontaminated by all that nasty ‘denier’ nonsense.You would also have the satisfaction of being able to claim that 100% of the comments agreed with you.
    You should also bear in mind that many of us(as I certainly do ) buy newspapers specifically to read interesting columnists such as John,even though we might disagree with the content.

  • johngibbons

    Ruairi, I’m happy to engage with anyone who’s prepared to do so in a civil, rational way. I do zap the out and out haters; I’m in favour of free speech, but don’t believe that right extends to hurling vicious ad hominem abuse, either at me or at other people who post comments here. There are plenty of hate sites where such malcontents can and do vent their spleen.

    I’ve had running dialogues on this site with hard-core deniers like the (always entertaining) Lord Monckton. No problem letting him sound off, as he does so with a bit of a literary flourish that, while I utterly disagree with just about everything he says, he puts his point across in an engaging way.

    Another problem with deniers, even the non-rude ones, is their need to repeat their point over and over again. I tend to let them have their say, but if they try to say it again 50 more times, the zapper button is applied. No one likes censorship, least of all a journalist, but, believe me, it’s essential from time to time. JG

  • http://voltsys.com Quentin Gargan

    I see Ray Bates gets an unopposed opportunity in the Irish Times today to warn us over the over-alarmist stance on climate change which might be taken by our government… http://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/warning-of-over-alarmist-stance-on-climate-risk-1.1792370?page=2

  • johngibbons

    Quentin, thanks for dropping by. The above article does date back a week or so, but yes, it’s depressing to see something of that quality go unopposed into a paper that prides itself on maintaining an authoritative ‘national conversation’. Prof Barry McMullin’s riposte in the Letters Page a couple of days later described Bates’ approach as “bizarre” and “idiosyncratic”. High praise indeed.

    BTW, I’m due to have a live “debate” with said Prof. this Thursday on Newstalk (The Right Hook) at around 5pm, so am hoping to get to ask him one or two questions arising from his article.

    If you or any other visitor here have questions you’d like me to include, or advice or comments, do please pass them on.

  • http://voltsys.com Quentin Gargan

    Ah… Sorry, I hadn’t spotted that earlier in the IT and it was reposted on FB by someone (who would be a skeptic). I think challenges can present opportunities. Why can’t Teagasc be at the forefront of finding ways of reducing bovine methane emission levels for example? Instead, we will seek a derogation so we can play catch-up in fifteen years time.

  • johngibbons

    No problem Quentin. Agreed, reducing bovine emissions would certainly be a worthwhile application of agri expertise. So too might be consideration for a National Food Security policy that actually put emphasis on how we might actually be able to feed ourselves in the event of, say, serious loss of access to the fossil fuels industrial agriculture depends entirely upon. For all our fabled food exporting prowess, Ireland Inc. is also, as you know, a massive food importer.

    Finding more sustainable, less fossil-dependent and more carbon/methane-light forms of food production, especially of meat and dairy. Mostly replacing beef with, for instance chicken would, I understand, be a huge step in the right direction. Cutting down meat and dairy would also be a huge boon to public health, however unthinkable the IFA and their supporters might find such an idea.