Steve Connor, science editor at the Independent newspaper warns us that
Tropical insects rather than polar bears could be among the first species to become extinct as a result of global warming, a study has found.
What does that even mean? Are the polar bears OK after all? Is the environmental movement looking for a new mascot for climate change? Is it out with the charismatic mega-fauna because of the environmental ethic that ‘small is beautiful’? But it’s nothing compared to the headline it appears under:
Insects ‘will be climate change’s first victims’
An image of a butterfly follows, with the caption…
Many tropical insect species, including butterflies, can only tolerate a narrow range of temperatures, and an average rise of 1C to 2C could be disastrous
Contrast with the measured language of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article on which Connor reports, and which the journal has kindly made available for free:
Our analyses imply that, in the absence of ameliorating factors such as migration and adaptation, the greatest extinction risks from global warming may be in the tropics, where biological diversity is also greatest.
This is not the first time the Independent has gone on about butterflies as the harbinger of doom. Back in March – a particularly cold March, as it happens – Environment Editor Michael McCarthy hit us with:
Last month, [climate change] produced its most remarkable image yet – a photograph, taken in Dorset, of a red admiral, an archetypal British summer butterfly, feeding on a snowdrop, an archetypal British winter flower.
But as we pointed out, the red admiral is far tougher that McCarthy gives it credit for, occasionally making an appearance in Winter, and is certainly not unusual in Spring and Autumn. Yet again, the Independent is making claims about the vulnerability of species that aren’t consistent with the state of knowledge.
The BBC is no more level-headed about the research…
The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100.
5.4C expected by whom? Well, expected by the anonymous author of the BBC article, apparently. Certainly, the IPCC makes no specific prediction for temperature rise this century. And 5.4ºC is not mentioned in the PNAS study, nor in the accompanying press release. The only match we can find is in IPCC AR4 where it is the top-end prediction for SRES scenario A2 (Table SPM.3), the range of which is 2.0-5.4ºC. But why pick 5.4ºC? If you’re just looking for a big number to scare people with, then why not plump for the upper value for the A1 scenario (1.4-6.4°C)? Is this like buying the second cheapest bottle of wine in a restaurant to prove you are not a skinflint? Or like Josef Fritzl wondering why everyone hates him when he could have been so much more horrible? [EDIT: The BBC has now "corrected" this error.]
Call us pedantic if you like; but imagine the outcry had the BBC reported that global temperatures are expected to rise by only 1.4ºC by the end of the century (the second lowest low point among the four AR4 SRES scenarios). But then, of course, it’s not just journalists (and activists) who are happy to over-egg the ecopocalyptic pudding. When, for example, Bob May (erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former chief scientific advisor to the UK government) confidently asserted in the popular media that a global temperature of 2ºC will put 15-40% of all species at risk of extinction, it was on the basis of a single, worst-case study. He was no less unobjective when he announced that climate swindler du jour Martin Durkin was also some sort of whacko HIV/AIDS denialist. And then there are the science academies, who, while being suspicious of the industry move towards open access publishing, are happy to make papers of the the-world-is-screwed-and-we’re-all-going-to-die variety available to all and sundry for free. Which is what the US’s National Academy of Sciences have done with this paper. And last year the Royal Society did it, too, when they published a paper which they claimed proved once and for all that the sun has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. This wasn’t just any old paper; it was, in the words of the Royal Society itself, “the truth about global warming“. And for some strange reason, we are still expected to take these academies’ opinions on what we should do about climate change as the last word on truth and beauty – “respect the facts” as Bob May puts it.
Newspaper editors and headline writers could – possibly – be forgiven for not understanding quite how science works. It’s harder to see how science correspondents could. And it’s laughable that the science academies seem not to. Funnier is that scientists and science academies are only too happy to criticise journalists, newspapers and TV producers when they report the science ‘wrongly’ (and you can bet your house that none of them will be criticising the Independent or the BBC on this occasion). But what do they expect? What sort of example do they think are they setting?
As we keep saying, this is no conspiracy. It’s just that – as they’ve been trying to tell us for years – scientists are human, too. Being human and everything, scientists are as jittery about the future and unsure of their role in society as the rest of us. But just because it turns out that they are as anxious as the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to take the claims of environmentalists at face value, or any less reason to maintain objectivity. Just as global warming is convenient for local governments, directionless leaders and crisis politics, it is also convenient for scientists and science academies lacking raison d’être.
Science might never have been quite the objective producer of facts that we like to think it is. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t strive to be an objective seeker of facts. Because striving to be objective about the facts of the material universe is precisely what science is supposed to do. When it applies itself instead to arming political narratives with legitimacy and authority, it talks itself out of a job.