Alarmists Caught Off-Guard(ian)

It’s a Guardian headline that might cause you to think its journalists were taking a good look at themselves,

Online news service promotes false climate change study

But Suzanne Goldenberg is pointing her fingers elsewhere.

An online news service sponsored by the world’s premier scientific association unwittingly promoted a study making the false claim that catastrophic global warming would occur within nine years, the Guardian has learned.

The study, by an NGO based in Argentina, claimed the planet would warm by 2.4C by 2020 and projected dire consequences for global food supply. A press release for the Food Gap study was carried by EurekAlert!, the news service operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) , and the story was picked up by a number of international news organisations on Tuesday.

“This is happening much faster than we expected,” Liliana Hisas, executive director of the Universal Ecological Fund (UEF) and author of the study, said of her findings.

I can’t quite believe what I am reading. A Guardian journalist… A guardian environmental journalist… is accusing someone of alarmism?

In an email, Gavin Schmidt, a Nasa climatologist wrote: “2.4C by 2020 (which is 1.4C in the next 10 years – something like six to seven times the projected rate of warming) has no basis in fact.”

The AAAS, which runs the EurekAlert! News service, removed reference to the study from its website on Tuesday afternoon.

“We primarily rely on the submitting organisation to ensure the veracity of the scientific content of the news release,” Ginger Pinholster, director of the office of public programmes for AAAS said.

“In this case, we immediately contacted a climate-change expert after receiving your query. That expert has confirmed for us that the information indeed raises many questions in his mind, and therefore we have removed the news release from EurekAlert!”

But by then the study had been picked up by a number of international news organisations including the French news agency AFP, Spain’s EFE news agency, the Canadian CTV television network and the Vancouver Sun, and the Press Trust of India.

For some climate scientists, the false claims made by the UEF paper recalled the highly damaging episode in which the IPCC, the UN’s climate science body, included the false information about melting of the Himalayan glaciers in its 2007 report.

Lawks-a-lordy! Even Gavin Schmidt is worried about over-egging the climate change pudding!

Are they finally beginning to get it? Is the Guardian going to be the newspaper of coherent, sober environmental reporting? They’d have to do something about this little series, though… In August 2008, Andrew Simms of the New Economics foundation declared that there were just 100 months to save the planet:

If you shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, when there is none, you understand that you might be arrested for irresponsible behaviour and breach of the peace. But from today, I smell smoke, I see flames and I think it is time to shout. I don’t want you to panic, but I do think it would be a good idea to form an orderly queue to leave the building.

Because in just 100 months’ time, if we are lucky, and based on a quite conservative estimate, we could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change

Simms has been writing a monthly doomsday countdown article ever since. And now there are — according to him — only 71 months left.

If Goldenburg really wants to challenge naked alarmism, she could stay in her employers offices. The Guardian is such a deep and rich mine of doom-saying and hysteria, I’ve never had to look much further than its latest articles for something to blog about.

Damien Carrington seems to be in unusually reflective mood, too

By mass, 99.9% of the Earth is hotter than 100C. That means that not far below our feet is the power to boil unlimited water and generate clean, renewable energy. Is the UK throwing all it can at this extraordinary opportunity? Of course not, who do you think we are? Germans?

That contrasts strikingly with the more glamorous sister of deep geothermal energy, nuclear power. Both ultimately tap the heat generated by the decay of radioactive elements. Geothermal plants send water down holes to bring to the surface the heat from natural radioactive decay deep in the mantle. Nuclear power mines the radionucleides, concentrates them, sends them critical and then wonders what to do with the leftover mess – not very elegant by comparison.

Credit where it is due, it’s the right kind of question to ask. And it also speaks about the possibilities that exist, rather than the predominant eco-narrative of doom and limits. But Carrington is only so reflective…

Because instead of asking ‘why nuclear, rather than geothermal?’, a better question would have been ‘why wind, rather than geothermal?’. After all, wind has been the ‘technology’ of choice for environmentalists in government and in newspapers. It’s wind that enjoys the most support from government. And it is wind that really divides opinion; both about its efficacy, and its own impact on the natural environment. Who could really object to a geothermal energy plant? (I am willing to place a bet that should the UK ever get round to developing geothermal energy production, some environmentalist will find a reason to raise objections to it.)

There is no choice between nuclear and geothermal, of course. We could do both. What’s interesting is the way we see alarmism creep sideways into Carrington’s argument: nuclear is dangerous, and therefore undesirable. Nuclear is dangerous, of course. But if it wasn’t dangerous, it probably wouldn’t be as useful. Carrington begins an interesting discussion, but it’s ultimately predicated on the silly preoccupation with risk, rather than a sober discussion about how it can be managed. The reason we should develop nuclear energy is that it offers us greater possibilities, not because, just like geothermal, it allows us to ‘keep the lights on’. The discussion about energy still treats demand for energy as something that has to be met, almost begrudgingly, by authority, for the sake of merely coping. The energy discussion should instead be informed by what it is possible to do with more and more of it: more movement, more life, less manual labour, less going without. But that discussion is completely offensive to the core of the environmentalist’s perspective, which is absolutely committed to the idea of natural limits. The differences between the way human-centric and eco-centric arguments about energy develop are moral, not technical.

9 thoughts on “Alarmists Caught Off-Guard(ian)”

  1. Fun stuff.

    I’ve been blogging about the faulty climate change study discussed at the top of this piece. Here in Canada, the CTV television network implied we should believe the study because it had been blessed by a “Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist.”

    Turns out it’s the Peace Prize (the very same one awarded to Al Gore) that’s being referenced. Which exposes a real problem. Technically, anyone who worked on an IPCC report can now be described as a Nobel laureate.

    Unfortunately, though, some IPCC insiders recently told an InterAcademy Council committee that many of their colleagues are scientifically weak. They were appointed because they are of the right gender or from the right country. (Which confirms your argument that the politics come first, and the science second.)

    IPCC Nobel laureates lack scientific credibility

  2. And, of course, why nuclear if coal, gas and oil are cheaper and therefore (because less in need of human labour) cleaner. How sophisticated and therefore ‘expensive’ do these poster child ‘dirty technologies’ have to be to make them ‘environmentally’ welcome?
    The Guardian, Ben, will not change, as long as the best new world wines and African coffee continues to be served on their tables. But if there advocacy in the end prevents that, what then? Will we see them on the same barricades, all be it the pettit bourgeois (placards and all – ‘Don’t take our frappes!’) section?

  3. And, also, Ben, have you seen the new headline on the BBC website (but not, curiously championed by news 24 or its teletext? Quaeritur) that ‘2010 hits global temperature high’ (notice the lack of conviction in that?), the small print being ‘2010 was the warmest year since global records began in 1850 – although margins of uncertainty make it a statistical tie with 1998 and 2005’. Strange. Does that mean there has been no change for a decade? Of course, there is the question of whether anyone can trust these figures, harbored as they are by the true believers.

  4. I don’t know about you all…but when I read that Al Gore bought some pricey beach front property on the East Coast of the USA….it sure did make me feel all safe and cozy….guess there’s no need to panic and sell my beach front property on the West Coast! I’m no government-funded scientist ..but the way I look at it…Gore’s real estate investment is a clear sign that he doesn’t buy into his own hype…i.e. that the sea level is rising at such a rapid rate due to man-made global warming the coast lines and life as we know it is going to be wiped out unless we immediately agree to Cap and Trade!!! What nonsense!

  5. Gavin qualified his criticism by saying that the majority of the report made salient points about threats to food production and supply. Aside from the fact that he’s not an expert in agriculture (although the epithet ‘climate scientist’ seems to make you an authority on everything), how can the claims be substantiated when the premise on which they are predicated is so ridiculously wrong?

  6. let’s try and ban that geothermal energy

    1. Beneath the Earth’s crust lies the mantle which is heated by the radioactive decay of heavy elements.
    2. The mantle is not quite solid and consists of magma which is in a state of semi-perpetual convection.
    3. This convection process causes the lithospheric plates to move, albeit slowly. The resulting process is known as plate tectonics.

    4. Tapping the energy of the magma layer affects the perfect balance of the planet. Over time the magma layer will cool. Plates will stop moving. Disaster will ensue. Millions will die.

    Hmm! Try again

    4. Tapping the energy of the magma layer can only be achieved by pumping a liquid through the layer and using the heat energy captured. Pumping liquids into the earth involves catastrophic risks that are so self evident I won’t bother to list them all. Radioactive elements will mix with the pumping liquid and life on earth will be exposed to radiation on a Chernobyl scale every day. Disaster will ensue. Millions will die.

    Hmm! Much more satisfying.

    This is fun.

  7. Ben, I hope this is not too off topic but I made a post to Andy Revkin’s brief Q&A with Brendan O’Neill on Malthusian-isms at http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/deconstructing-a-bestiary-of-malthusian-miserabilists/, thus:

    I’ve read over half the comments, so far, of your interesting but precised (sic – what’s the past tense of to precis?) allusion to Brendan O’Neill’s thinking on Malthusianisms (sic – again!) of the modern kind, particularly those informed by environmental concerns, and I haven’t yet come across a post that actually appreciates his point of view. This is, perhaps, understandable since not many are familiar with Brendan or Spike online and therefore it would be difficult to put such a brief allusion into context. Those who can read ( and it seems many can’t, attributing to Andy the answers quite clearly marked as Brendans!) might try http://www.climate-resistance.org and search Malthus. Just a couple of pointers:

    At a time when we are reaching that unheard of number of 7 billion souls, never have we been healthier, longer-lived and more environmentally ‘sustained’ (!) than we are now. The flip side, of course, being that we are also seemingly more vulnerable (the terrible famines of east Africa, the numbers affected and killed by the recent floods in Sri Lanka and Brazil and so forth) but this vulnerability is in essence a vulnerability of development and not demographics. A case in point is the contrast between the Queensland, Australia flooding vise a vis what has happened in Sri Lanka and Brazil. Ie this is a matter of Political economy and not population. As everyone knows the fastest way to ‘solve’ the ‘population problem’ is to make people wealthy. Not education (for what is education when one is starving, as useful as knowing the formula of water when one is drowning) but material wealth is what matters.

    Secondly, there is a psychological, emotional, philosophical element here. To see people as some kind of dehumanized ‘footprint’, much like a car etc, as so much ‘waste’ really cuts to the quick of a way of thinking that has some very tragic antecedents.

    Finally, the ‘limitations of recourses’ is a pure fiction which fails to take into account that not only do human beings innovate they also transform, toto coelo, their world and themselves. There is a far more in the future than is dreamed of in your philosophy, dear misanthropes.

    Just some ideas, Andy, clumsily put, I admit.

    Hope you approve but perhaps you might be, as you already have been, more articulate!

    ——————————–

    And this is, again, off-topic but I hope you’ll forgive me. It’s called ‘How inadvertent racism displays itself!’

    I was watching BBC 4’s Iron Maiden: Flight 666, a stupid title for a stupid band, but during this documentary we have the usual ‘freak’ fans from Eastern Europe and I thought how crass and how moronic. People that I know, who are the most sophisticated and educated on the planet (maybe the Nips beat them!). And yet, again and again, the BBC pulls this lazy rubbish of ‘ let’s show those absurd easterners, I’m sure they’ll be entertaining’! It used to be the Germans.

    ——————————–

    An evening of red and gold. Morecambe,
    A town that exhibits it’s sores without shame.
    A beautiful Polish girl (ah!) industrial shopping.
    A shabby world that makes the best submit to the weak.
    We tore down your world, Mr Stalin, but only to enslave
    what is best in ourselves. With the opening
    Of your mad house gates a world of responsibility.
    But my neighbour is merely my neighbours neighbour!

  8. I was intrigued by the timeline of this story since it struck me that if a high profile sceptic had been the first to point out this error then that could have been very damaging to the “politics prior the science” AGW believers.

    BTW I have been persuaded by the “politics prior the science” arguments put forward by this blog and I think this story illustrates the pathological situation that this philosophy has got us to.

    From what I can find (of the timeline) I think I am correct that sceptics were ridiculing it from an anti-alarmism stance – before any spotted the detailed science error.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2011/01/getting-things-right/#more-6075

    On the RealClimate 20th January item three quotes from Gavin Schmidt stand out:

    “Last Monday, I was asked by a journalist whether a claim in a new report from a small NGO made any sense.”

    “Last Monday” refers to 17th January, I think at least a day before even the first sceptic political critique was given at Haunting the Library. I don’t follow every site pro/against so if I am wrong please correct me.

    Schmidt at RC again:

    “I replied to the journalist (and indirectly to the NGO itself, as did other scientists) that no, this did not make any sense, and that they should fix the errors before the report went public on Thursday. For various reasons, the NGO made no changes to their report.”

    This says to me that some journalists quite rightly trust Schmidt to filter out the most egregious immediate scientific errors that could make environmental journalists look stupid and help the jounalist to correct the NGO’s. However this time the system failed as Schmidt says:

    “For various reasons, the NGO made no changes to their report. The press response to their study has therefore been almost totally dominated by the error at the beginning of the report, rather than the substance of their work on the impacts.”

    I think that last statement from Schmidt is a wonderful example of the politics/climate science dynamic that we have today. And it is wonderful that this is said by a scientist not a journalist. It is obvious in this case that a clear scientific fault has undermined the political message about the “substance of their work on the impacts”, which has now left some campaigners in a quandry about whether to discard the science or the politics of this particular story or just ignore the lot!

    No apparent qualms about that NGO’s “various reasons” where riding rough shod over the “science” side of the truth is shown here.

    I don’t feel it is the beginning of “coherent, sober environmental reporting”, but rather more an example of how sloppy the science has become. Journalism will always be the same.
    More abstruse errors have been spotted by the likes of Steve McIntyre which are happily ignored and prevaricated over to such an extent that the final acknowledgments of correctness can be then even more happily ignored – even when their implied consequences are far larger.
    These problems will remain ignored by journalists, it is not the journalists responsibilty to correct them.

  9. StuartR wrote:

    “Schmidt says:

    “For various reasons, the NGO made no changes to their report. The press response to their study has therefore been almost totally dominated by the error at the beginning of the report, rather than the substance of their work on the impacts.”

    The above statement from Schmidt strikes me as being a variation on a longstanding theme: whenever any error has been highlighted in the work of The Team and/or its associates, their response (when they choose to acknowledge the problem) has invariably been to minimize the impact of the error/problem by claiming that it does not affect the overall results/conclusions of the original work, OWTTE.

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