Monthly Archives: August 2012

This is a guest post by Geoff Chambers and Alex Cull.


“Ten Billion”, described as  “a new kind of scientific lecture” by scientist Stephen Emmott and director Katie Mitchell played at the Royal Court theatre in London for three weeks in July and August, and at the Festival d’Avignon in France. It was a huge critical success, and in a post-show discussion Emmott said that he had been bombarded with offers from film makers to turn it into a tv documentary, and claimed to have received thousands of requests from the public to have it shown  to schools and to politicians.

So what’s in it? Only a few thousand people lucky enough to have seen the show know, since it was shown at the Theatre Upstairs, which only seats ninety, and, contrary to normal Royal Court practice, a playscript has not been published.

Since the critics seem to be unanimous about its importance, and the stage show is likely to be transformed into a tv film which will be watched by millions, we decided to try and piece together  the contents from quotations in press reviews, rather like that lost Satyr Play by Sophocles, known only from fragments found on scraps of papyrus wrapped round  a mummified crocodile.

Besides the reviews by theatre critics, our main sources were two filmed interviews, one by  the director Katie Mitchell given at the Avignon theatre festival, the other a question-and-answer session by Professor Emmott after a performance at the Royal Court. Both these, plus an item on Radio’s Today programme, have been transcribed and are available at Alex’s site:

https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120722_km

https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120809_tb

The title “Ten Billion” refers to Emmott’s estimate of the likely world population at the end of the century. Most of the reviews speak of “overpopulation”; Whatsonstage talks of the “exponential” population expansion and Time Out talks of Emmott’s prediction “that the global population is spiralling out of control”.

The reviews were full of superlatives. The Times’ critic calls it “utterly gripping, terrifyingly lucid”; Time Out: “monumentally sobering”; Billington in the Guardian: “one of the most disturbing evenings I have ever spent in a theatre”; the Financial Times: “one of the most disturbing shows I have seen on a stage”; the Mail on Sunday “certainly the most scary show in London”. Almost all of them cite Emmott’s conclusion: “We’re f*cked”.

Here are some of the key “facts” (or “f*cts”) cited by Emmott and picked up by critics. (It is of course impossible to check whether the critics have quoted Emmott correctly, since no record of what he says exists):

1) A google search uses as much electricity as boiling a kettle.

2) It takes 3,000 litres of water to make a hamburger, (that’s 10 trillion litres of water annually to sustain the UK’s burger industry).

3) It takes 27,000 litres of water to make a bar of chocolate

3) Animal species are currently going extinct at a rate 1,000 times their natural level.

4) Bangladesh will be under water by the end of the century.

Taking them one by one:

1) A cup of tea is worth a Google search

The New Scientist has an interview with Emmott in which the Google/kettle anecdote is repeated and in which Emmott says:

the goal was simply to inform and give people an opportunity and a framework for thinking differently about the nature of the problems that we face. You might say it’s quite stark, but 99 per cent of the talk is just the science and the facts.

The article has an update pointing out that Google disputes this figure, saying it’s a hundred times too large. So who to believe? Google, or the Microsoft professor of Computational Science at Oxford? Or should we split the difference?

2) How moist is your hamburger?

The figure of  3000 litres of water to make a hamburger dwarfs average daily consumption of 150 litres per day. Even if you accept the concept of “virtual” water, (incorporating water used in the manufacture of products consumed) as explained in a Guardian article — according to which the true figure for UK water usage is 30 times greater than the official amount — you would need 10% of total water usage in the UK, including  “virtual” water, just to keep us in hamburgers – an unlikely result.

Googling “3000 litres of water to make a hamburger” leads us to sites like waterfootprint.org, which cite the peer reviewed articles (e.g. Mekonnen & Hoekstra: A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products) which are the ultimate source of these figures. The high water content of hamburgers is explained by counting the rain falling on the grass or other crops consumed by the cow. It could be pointed out in defense of the Big Mac that even if you abolished livestock rearing and went back to hunter gathering, the same amount of rain would still fall on the same amount of grassland, and your voleburger would still have the same water footprint, though presumably without mustard and mayonnaise. It really doesn’t matter whether Mekonnen and Hoekstra have done their sums right; it’s not science – just a Reader’s Digest-style factoid to bring out to impress your dinner party guests over the home-grown roquette quiche.

3) Homeopathic chocolate

27,000 litres to make a bar of chocolate, cited by reviewers here and here also seems a bit steep. The Urban Times website quotes 27,000 litres per kilo as the water footprint of chocolate, (perhaps Emmott likes big chocolate bars?) and adds:

there is a simple reason behind the large water footprint. The natural habitat of the cocoa bean is the lower storey of the evergreen rainforest and the plant requires vast amounts of water to thrive. It needs rainfall of between 1,500mm and 2,000mm per year with consistent levels throughout the year. Compare this to the 650mm per year as an average in London.

By converting some of their rainforest into cocoa plantations, countries like Ghana can transform natural resources such as their ample rainfall into valuable cash crops and become wealthier. One day the may even become wealthy enough to hold dinner parties where they can worry whether the stuff they import from Europe has been ethically and sustainably produced.

3) Animal extinctions a thousand times the background rate.

Wikipaedia  says “the rate of species extinctions [not just animal species] at present is estimated at 100 to 1000 times “background” or average extinction rates in the evolutionary time scale of planet Earth” and cites J.H.Lawton and R.M.May, Extinction rates, OUP.  Given that new species are being discovered faster than current ones are going extinct, any figure is bound to be highly suspect, even one as vague as that cited by Wiki. Has Emmott simply taken the higher of two vastly different estimates for overall species loss and applied it to the tiny proportion of species which people care about – the four-legged ones?

Willis Eschenbach points out that, according to the Committee on Recently Extinct Organisms, of the 61 mammal species known to have become extinct in the past 500 years, 58 were island dwellers, hunted to death by European colonisers. He says:

Of the 4,428 known mammal species (Red List 2004) living in Asia, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Antarctica, only three mammals have gone extinct in the last 500 years.

Clearly, any idea of animal species loss being multiplied a thousandfold by climate change, or anything else, is nonsense.

4) Is Bangladesh disappearing?

A quarter of the land surface in this huge river delta is flooded every year. Thousands die, but, as the 2008 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan explains in some detail, great progress is being made to limit the damage and loss of life. This progress is due to the impressive economic and social development the country has experienced:

Since Bangladesh achieved Independence in 1971, GDP has more than tripled in real terms , food production has increased three-fold, the population growth rate has declined from around 2.9% per annum in 1974 to 1.4% in 2006 and the country is now largely food secure. Over the last 20 years, growth has accelerated and the country is on track to become a middle income country by 2020. In four out of the last five years the economy has grown at over 6%. Between 1991 and 2005, the percentage of people living in poverty declined from 59% to 40% … Child mortality has fallen substantially and gender parity in primary education has been achieved.

If you google “Bangladesh surface area”, the first few results all cite a World Bank report which gives the surface area of Bangladesh as 144,000 sq km, unchanged since 1961. The round figure and the lack of change over 50 years look suspicious. Could it be that the Bangladesh government is too poor or too incompetent to measure its own surface area?

Not so. A few minutes’ research show that it’s the World Bank which can’t be arsed to get its facts right. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics’ 2010 Pocketbook gives a figure from the 2001 census of 147,570 sq km. -considerably more precise, and 5% up on the World Bank’s vague out-of-date estimate.

The impression that the area of Bangladesh is actually growing is confirmed by the experts working on land reclamation. From:

http://pulitzercenter.org/articles/bangladesh-fights-survival-against-climate-change

“The Bangladeshi rivers carry silt unlike any others and an intervention is all that is needed to create new land,” said S.R. Khan, a government water engineer. “Bangladesh is the only country in the world that can physically grow.” […] “Our understanding is that the process of siltation, particularly when you are supporting it through creating dams, that the process is much faster than the increase in sea levels,” said Alphons Hennekens, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Bangladesh.

*    *    *

The key prediction, contained in the title of Emmott’s piece, is that  the world’s population is due to grow from its current seven billion to ten billion by the end of the century.

According to the 2010 revision of the UN’s World Population Prospects this figure will be reached on 18 June 2083. It represents a radical increase from that given in the last full report, “World Population to 2300” published in 2004 which predicted:

world population peaks at 9.22 billion in 2075… [A]fter reaching its maximum, world population declines slightly and then resumes increasing, slowly, to reach a level of 8.97 billion by 2300, not much different from the projected 2050 figure.

The 2010 update is not a proper report like the 2004 document, but a bunch of graphs for internet browsing, and is therefore much more difficult to evaluate. There is, however, a set of FAQs in the 2010 document which explain the upward revision as being due largely to a revision of estimates of fertility rates. My BS detector shot off the dial when I read in FAQ3 that the figure of ten billion is due to be reached on 18 June 2083, (what? during Wimbledon?) and that FAQ9 cites a reversal of declining fertility rates in Estonia and the Channel Isles among the reasons for the upward revison – but that’s another story. Even if one accepts the revised figures, there is no basis for describing population growth as “exponential” or “spiralling out of control” or even “overpopulation” as many critics did. Were they citing Emmott, or did they make it up? There’s no way of knowing.

Of the checkable facts cited by critics quoting Emmott, only the Ten Billion has credible official support. But even this apparently solidly based projection came under fire in the discussion after the show, when a member of the audience mentioned:

a lecture at my own institution by Professor Sarah Harper, who’s professor of demography at Oxford, and she took a much more reassuring view than you … of population growth. She said that changing lifestyles in every part of the world, with a few pockets of exceptions in Africa, would lead us to conclude that the portrait you portray of relentless expansion of population is not the case. I’m confused now, having heard your wonderful talk tonight.

Stephen Emmott: 

No, I’m not quite as optimistic as Sarah, but – and I do share most of her views. Er, but I didn’t actually say we would be 28 billion, I said if the … rate continues at the current rate – and even I don’t think it will – we would be 28 billion, and she would say the same. She might argue that it could be 22 billion, but neither of us would disagree that it’s twenty-something. I just happen to not be quite as optimistic as Sarah about lifestyle changes and how soon they will occur and their consequences in the short term.

Man in audience:

She ended up by saying “It’s a wonderful world for young people”, the complete opposite to producing guns…

So Emmott agrees with fellow Oxford professor Harper – even though she thinks “it’s a wonderful world” and he thinks “we’re f*cked”.

The reference to guns concerns an anecdote which greatly impressed the critics concerning a scientist colleague of Emmott who, when asked what he intended to do to prepare for the future, said “make sure my children know how to use a gun”.

Emmott was at pains to dispel any idea that his colleagues were given to violence. He explained:

I was quite surprised when this guy in my lab said this, because he’s very, very level-headed. And he said so because, you know, we have a lab of forty people working in this area, and you know, everyone shares the same view as he does, and it’s simply on the basis of a) the science, and b) if we’re heading for trouble, of some sort…

Now there’s nothing surprising about someone saying something daft and dramatic in the course of a casual conversation. What is surprising is Emmott’s assertion that the forty people working with him (all top brains doing avant-garde science, according to Katie Mitchell) “all share the same view”. Of course, there’s no more reason to believe this assertion than any of the others offered by Emmott as scientific truth, given his tendency to be out by a factor of ten or a hundred in his estimates. But supposing he’s right. A lab of top flight scientists employed to do Blue-Sky thinking on behalf of the British and American governments, all thinking the same.

Isn’t that rather worrying?

Postscript: In the post-show discussion, Emmott claimed: “an interview that I did about this talk generated just thousands of blogs and comments within you know, a handful of days…”

We’ve done a lot of googling, and come up with 94 comments to an article by Robin McKie in the Observer and 23 to the interview in the New Scientist. Can anyone come up with any more, or is this another  example of an Emmottic – a statistic that requires a downward revision of several magnitudes?

From the pulpit at the Church of Crass Generalisations and Poorly Concealed Prejudice, Andrew Brown of the Guardian delivered these words on Tuesday:

There’s a first class article in Nature this week on the reasons Americans reject the science of climate change. It has wider implications for a lot of the ways in which we think and talk about rationality.

Hmm. ‘Americans reject the science of climate change’? All of them? Or just some of them in particular?

The article linked to by Brownwas authored by Dan Kahan, professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School. Kahan tries to explain why it is that controversy persists in the climate debate. People’s ‘reasoning powers have become disabled by a polluted science-communication environment’, he says. In some senses, this is a refreshing break from the ‘deficit’ model of the climate debate: that stupid politicians are in hock to the material desires and base instincts of the stupid, fecund, consuming public. The problem is not too few powers of reason on the public’s behalf, but too much.

The reason the debate is polarised, says Kahan, is that people are very good at ‘filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers’. In other words, you believe what your mates believe, because to do otherwise would mean to commit to a life of loneliness… or something. Scepticism of climate change, then, is perfectly rational, from the point of view of sustaining your social network. The problem begins, on Kahan’s view, when the ‘communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings’.

Meanings like ‘denier’, perhaps?

Kahan’s theory is that people don’t make decisions about the facts in front of them, but are motivated by something else. He begins by challenging the theory that people are too stupid to understand the science, but ends up back in the same place. Curiously, he passes over the research that is most likely to take him in the right direction…

Social-science research indicates that people with different cultural values — individualists compared with egalitarians, for example — disagree sharply about how serious a threat climate change is.

… to go on to describe instead some superficially empirical test which bears out the idea that even in the face of unimpeachable expertise, people will return to the prejudices of the group to which they belong:

People with different values draw different inferences from the same evidence. Present them with a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, for example, and they will disagree on whether he really is an ‘expert’, depending on whether his view matches the dominant view of their cultural group (D. M. Kahan et al. J. Risk Res. 14, 147–174; 2011).

But the trouble for social science theorists is that you don’t need to be one of them to understand why this is. There are very good reasons why people with ‘different cultural values’ may end up diverging on the interpretation of evidence, as I’ve described here before. In brief: if you hold with a view that nature is in a permanent state of fragile balance and that human society is dependent on that balance, you will be more nervous of change in the natural environment than someone who believes that humans (especially in industrial society) are more self-dependent and robust. For entirely contingent reasons, these two positions roughly correspond to contemporary political trends that are nominatively/superficially ‘egalitarian’ and ‘individualistic’. (This idea of such a distinction is itself a bit of a red herring, but that is another blog post.)

The even bigger mistake is putting the social-group cart before the belief horse. No doubt some values are socially-transmitted. But it is primarily people’s interests which determine what circles they move in, not vice versa. Except in the most parochial of places, we — by which I mean people who are sufficiently privileged to take a view on the climate change debate — encounter sufficient diversity of opinion that few could argue that they didn’t have the opportunity to reflect their change of mind with a change of social group, albeit slowly. Things may be different for Kahan, perhaps, but I remain friends with the people who think I’m absolutely insanely wrong about environmental politics. Good friends. And our continued friendship is not predicated on our agreement about climate change.

So much pseudo-scientific social theory that passes for academic research is transparently intended to deny that people are capable of reason, or that they reason in ways that they shouldn’t. And in the process, these researchers cannot help but reveal that what they attempt to reveal in the wider public is much more true of the academy. Who would dare challenge environmentalism on the campus dominated by seemingly liberal, progressive thought? More pertinently, perhaps: who would dare to suggest that the wider public possessed sufficient faculties that the Faculty itself is is in many cases (but not all, of course) redundant, if not an actual toxic force in today’s, post-democratic politics? Perhaps people presented with ‘a PhD scientist who is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences’ aren’t inclined to bow and scrape before him, because the PhD scientist has a tendency to undermine his new acquaintance’s faculties, to say that they are lacking, and that a study of them reveal patterns of thought which are irrational and thus not capable of making decisions. The feeling is surely mutual. Kahan should worry as much less about science communication as he counsels that people should worry less about the public’s intellectual deficit; he should worry about what the science of reducing people in this way — and for what ends — says about climate ‘science’.

Back to Brown, who it is now clear was wrong to say that Kahan says anything particular to Americans in general, or American sceptics in particular. And even if Kahan had explained the mechanics of some kind of ‘group think’ at the social level, it would equally apply to environmentalists. Brown believes that,

It will take the kind of conformism and sense of moral obligation offered by religious thought and ritual if we are to save the planet

Brown continues to try to distance himself from the people-are-stupid account of scepticism in the same way Kahan does. The argument again being that individuals are making ‘rational’ decisions, but rationalising on a different basis — their social survival, rather than on the basis of the putative facts of climate science. But this leaves Brown and Kahan in a relativistic bind: if values and the basis for rational decisions are dependent on social context, what does that say about the content of Kahan and Brown’s own reasoning? If they want to sustain the idea that they have the ‘correct’ understanding of ‘the science’, then they cannot say that the sceptics are capable of reason. One can’t say that finding an answer of 5 for the question ‘what is 2 plus 2′ is ‘rational’, on the basis that someone’s friends and family believe the answer to be 5, and that he wants to keep his friendships. Such a move is putting something beforereason. Brown fudges an answer:

One explanation is that we have a problem of propaganda: the lobbyist’s rule that for every PhD there is an equal and opposite PhD makes it easy for malevolent forces to blind the world with bullshit.

But saying that people can pick and choose their experts only defers the problem so far: it still suggests that one group of people with a particular belief are more vulnerable to ‘propaganda’ than another, their rational faculties being less capable of detecting it. And it is in the following passage that we discover that Brown really is vulnerable to something…

Personal experience is not infinitely malleable. Perhaps if there were anything we could do about the weather, our opinions of it would be modified by the effects we saw our actions having. But there isn’t. The weather is uncontrollable and this is even more true of climate change. What you or I do as individuals makes no difference to global warming. Even what the whole of the UK does won’t change much.

These are some curious ideas that Brown is putting forward. The weather may or may not be controllable, and ‘personal experience’ may not be ‘infinitely malleable’, whatever that means. Brown is trying not to say that weather and climate change, being forces of nature, are inevitable, whereas people can be more easily controlled. Spot the deliberate mistake in Brown’s next passage:

The kind of changes in consumption needed to make a real difference to our carbon output would require multinational action at government level.

‘Multinational action’ is above the ‘government level’. It is intergovernmental, or supranational. Or in other words, it is a new layer of governance. And the basis for this new layer of governance is, as Brown says:

… democratic governments act from perceived self-interest even more than individual voters do. Since their actions are consistently directed to an end, an economist could call them rational. Both voters and governments, in ignoring the very painful adjustments that would be needed to diminish climate change, are definitely working to a utility function. They want to minimise their own unpopularity and will see the world in ways that make their actions seem rational. In general the right has understood this better than the left (or do I say this because the misdeeds of the other side are so much more apparent?).

The main problem for Brown here is that governments — especially the UK’s — has responded to a political consensus on the climate which is not shared by the public. The UK and EU’s policies do not reflect popular will. That’s not to say that there is substantial opposition to them (yet), but that these governments were able to create these policies, in spite of the public. Brown’s argument is not a challenge to the way politics is being done, but a ringing endorsement of it.

Brown takes Kahan’s observation that social context and attitudes towards the environment are somehow/somewhat correlated, to make an attack on democracy. Just as individuals are vulnerable to what their peers think, democratic governments are vulnerable to what the aggregate of all peer-groups believe. Rationality being so malleable and fickle, democracy is therefore not up to the task of coping with material reality — climate change. It was the historic left which made the arguments for the expansion of democratic control in the past, against traditional political orders, to allow people to make political decisions precisely in their own interests. Brown now eschews the idea that reason is what makes the the individual capable of giving government a mandate through democratic processes, and asks for democracy to be suspended, and for governance to be legitimised instead on the basis of environmental catastrophe. Even if it were true that the political right’s ‘misdeeds’ in corrupting democracy ‘are so much more apparent’, contempt for the principle of democratic government is contempt for the demos, and vice versa. It’s the proles that Brown fears most.

What religious thought – and ritual – can supply is the two things absent from normative consumer liberalism. The first is a belief that the choice between ends is not arbitrary or wholly personal: that there are moral facts of the matter; that saving as much of humanity as possible is an obligation on all of us, and that this is actually true, and not just a matter of preference.

Environmental catastrophe is, I’ve argued here before, a cheap moral realism. Brown wants there to be ‘moral facts of the matter’, but doesn’t realise that he has shot himself in both feet on his quest to find shared values to which we would all be obedient. First, his own relativistic meandering left him lame as he undermined the idea that individuals are capable of reason at all — we’d rather be friends with each other. And then, hopping on one foot, he fell over when he revealed that rather than allowing people to hold with the values they do share, he wants a greater authority to be sovereign. The idea that there is a ‘normative consumer liberalism’ which makes individuals’ ends sovereign is in total contradiction with the idea that people’s views of the world are formed, or mediated by their peers. Brown continues…

The second is the kind of conformism, reinforced by all kinds of social ritual, large and small, which will enforce the social discipline needed to carry societies through some pretty ghastly changes. Let’s face it, any adjustment to an ecologically sustainable standard of living is going to be a lot nastier than anything Greece is going through now. It will need considerable determination and solidarity.

Greens for so long have promised that environmental asceticism, and the transition towards it would not just be a joyful process of transcendence in which our lives would be given meaning and authenticity, it need not even be marked by austerity. Now even that promise has faded. It will be ‘ghastly’, admits Brown. And this process towards the ghastly needs a religion, if not to police the thoughts of the individuals who absorb it freely, then to legitimise the actual policing of the actions of those who do not.

It’s hard not to wonder whose side Brown is even on. Keep writing, Andrew.

But something I’ve wondered much more about than that, is whether the desire for austerity, for conformity, and for ‘shared’ values is owed much less to what ‘science says’, than for these things as ends in themselves…

The basic mechanism of social conformism is not so much policing behaviour – that needs only outrage – but policing emotion: the kind of second-order enforcement of conformity where my failure to feel outrage becomes itself a matter for your outrage. There’s plenty of that around today.

… After all, the problem for environmentalists — especially outraged Guardian hacks — has been sharing their outrage. Environmentalism remains an elite preoccupation. And so it is no surprise that environmentalists’ ideas are fantasies that reflect a desire for elite forms of political and social organisation, above the reach of the hoi-polloi. The hoi-polloi — the demos — has failed to respond to environmentalism’s prophets, and so environmental mythology has developed to account for this disobedience. On the environmentalists view, the minds of individuals have been captured, and thus, being captured means they can be recaptured — it’s just a matter of taking control of the right social and political institutions, or creating new ones, such that families and social acquaintances no longer allow the ‘wrong’ values to contaminate ‘rational’ thought — and even if it did, it wouldn’t make any difference.

This is all in contrast to the view that individuals can be persuaded through reason, by appealing to people’s rational faculties. And it is in contrast to the view than people’s values, beliefs, and rational processes can be understood simply by asking people what they think and why they think it. Kahan and Brown then speculate as to what it is that ‘really’ drives the formation of opinions and beliefs about the world, as though individuals had nothing to do with it. Brown’s desire for a ‘new moral order’ belies the vacuum in his own moral perspective. It is in fact terror at the possibility of a moral order existing outside of his own control. ‘Science’ is a surrogate moral framework in an otherwise amoral, hollow perspective, held by people who, in spite of their vacuity, want to be able to assert control, in lieu of any basis on which their influence could be legitimised. ‘Science’ is (ab)used first to say ‘do this or die’, and then is used to explain why people don’t respond to such transparent moral blackmail. The thing that doesn’t seem to have occurred to environmentalists is that this isn’t science at all, and that this fact is as plain as day to everyone else.

Following the previous post here about alarmist stories of Arctic ice melt, Seymour Laxon, the scientist behind the recent spate of ‘Arctic melting quicker than we thought’ stories, replied in the comments.

Dear Ben

“Paul Matthews let me know by twitter that I was wrong to say the measurements were based just on Cryosat2. In the interview, he explains that the data were produced by using Cryosat2 and NASA’s Icestat satellite. Either way, however, the data he refers are measurements still only taken since 2010, which I still believe is far too short a time series to say anything about trends, let alone safely projecting them.”

As I stated on Today the results come from combining data from CryoSat-2 with earlier measurements by NASA’s ICEsat satellite (2003-2008). The statement in Andrew Orlowski’s article that my results are based only two years of data is therefore untrue (I have e-mailed him to point this out).

In the interview, Laxon referred to measurements taken ‘this decade’, which I presumed to mean since 2010. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me to take from this understanding that Laxon’s predictions about the decline of Arctic sea ice were therefore based on a data series which is too short to be meaningful. (I am still not confident that even the 10 year sample is sufficient, but that is by-the-by as far as this post is concerned).

Most of my criticism of environmental journalists has been their apparent laziness in establishing the facts of the stories they aim to report on — of taking scientists’ claims at face value, and of failing to subject any back story, or coincident claims to criticism and scrutiny. Most of the coverage of developments in environmental science are lifted straight out of the press release, and seen through the pre-existing alarmist narrative, as I discussed in my article for Spiked this week. So it would seem that I had been pretty sloppy myself, for not having established precisely what Laxon’s method was.

Except there was nothing to find. I looked. And I looked. And I looked. I could not find a press release from Laxon’s places of work, or organisations associated with them. I could not find any new research published anywhere. No mention of it was made on the Cryosat2 website. I even asked on Twitter — where is the science?

I replied to Laxon by email, and in the comments:

Thanks for your comment, Seymour.

Could you explain where the research is published, so that we can see how you have produced these results from the data?

Many thanks,

Ben.

Laxon replied by email:

Dear Ben

As I have made clear in the media the results are preliminary.

They results are now being finalised for publication (hopefully very soon). The paper will
report on what the data tells us has happened to Arctic ice volume over the period 2003-12.

Regards

But ‘preliminary results’ are not results, as I pointed out in the previous post. Why would anyone be interested in a premature announcement of results, and how come they generated so many headlines? I asked Laxon:

Dear Seymour,

So how did the media get hold of these preliminary results? Did you
send them to newsdesks? Or did it go out on a PR newswire? And why
didn’t you wait until you had the final results before you commented
on them?

Many thanks,

Ben.

Laxon replied:

I was approached by the media (it is well know that I am working with CryoSat) and agreed to talk as long as it was made clear that the results were preliminary.

In any case the first estimates of volume from CryoSat were published on the BBC back in April, and presented at the Royal Society in front of the press, at the request of the European Space Agency.

For your information the data have been processed in a more or less identical manner to that described in Kwok et al JGR, 2009 and Giles et al GRL, 2008.

I am doing my best to get the paper and data out there as soon as possible.

Regards

At this point, I am not sure who this reflects on the worst: journalists who seem hungry for the story, or the scientist who is prepared to give it to them. Surely an experienced scientist like Laxon ought to know that research like this would provoke a great deal of interest and debate, which would be better served with the benefit of the full and final analysis, not simply headline figures about ‘preliminary results’. I asked Laxon:

Dear Seymour.

I can see by the raft of results produced by google that many journalists picked up the story.

Which media organisation/journalist approached you first in this most recent case of your ‘preliminary results’? I presume that the rest followed after just one newspaper(?) reported it? I’m trying to understand how they found out that you had ‘preliminary results’.

I’m also a bit confused about why you didn’t explain that you couldn’t comment until the preliminary results had been made more concrete.

Ben.

Laxon replied:

They were talking to one of my colleagues who was aware of my results. Scientists often share results prior to publication, that’s how science progresses.

It’s common in any case for journalists to come and talk to scientists after conference presentations which may show unpublished results and write articles about them afterwards.

If I had doubts that the final numbers might be substantially different then I might have been more cautious. However the data have been processed using well established and documented (i.e. published in peer review journals) procedures and validated using various ground data. Some of the numbers (such as the agreement of ice volume with PIOMAS) were presented to the press back in April.

Nice talking to you but I really do need to get on and finish the paper which I hope to submit in the next week or so.

That seems to be the end of the correspondence from Laxon. I replied:

Dear Seymour,

Thanks for your email, but it didn’t quite answer my question. I wondered who you had spoken to first — which newspaper/journalist?

No doubt scientists and journalists talk to each other. But most scientific developments that I am aware of, are announced to the press via press release, embargoed until the publication of the
peer-reviewed work. This process has its own problems, of course. But it surely is preferable to the obvious problems that would be created by unpublished, un-peer-reviewed research being reported in the media. Your integrity and honesty notwithstanding, we nonetheless have only your word for the soundness of your method, and of the data itself, and are left none the wiser about how either developed. I look forward to your research being published (when?) but in the meantime, the headlines have been generated, without the scrutiny that stories which [have] such far-reaching implications surely deserve? in spite of your comment that this is how science progresses, I don’t see how science can progress if it is done like this.

Best wishes,

Ben.

So maybe Andrew Orlowski and I were wrong to suggest that the alarmist headlines were based on a ‘half-baked data set‘. But maybe we weren’t. The alarmist narrative has been served, with no opportunity given to interrogate the data, the analysis of the data, and the reporting of the analysis in the media.

And there is no doubting the effect of this story. A Google search for web pages published in the last week for the terms ‘seymour’, ‘laxon’, ‘arctic’ returns 996 results:

BBC interview – Arctic ice melting faster than ever?
Arctic ocean losing 50% more summer ice than predicted
Arctic sea ice could disappear within 10 years as global warming increases speed of melting
Arctic ice could vanish in 10 years, scientists warn
Arctic ice could vanish within 10 years: Scientists
An ice-free Arctic ocean in the summer within 10 years? It’s possible
Arctic losing ice much faster than expected
Arctic Sea Ice Could Vanish In 10 Years: Study
Rate of Arctic summer sea ice loss is 50 per cent higher than predicted
Arctic ice thinning faster than thought
‘Arctic sea ice could disappear within 10 years’

And so on. Hundreds of headlines, read by millions of people. Because Seymour Laxon had a cup of tea with a journalist pal, and revealed the results of his unpublished, un-peer-reviewed work.

This is the anatomy of climate alarmism. For years it has been the claim of environmentalists that their arguments were based on peer-reviewed literature published in credible, scientific journals, and that their critics didn’t enjoy the authority that institutional science gave them. But now we see that all it takes for a story to snowball, are, in such conditions, the premature words of a single scientist, about his ‘preliminary results’. The truth is that the avalanche was ready for the first tiny impulse that would send it cascading throughout the media, across the world. And that is how unpublished, untested results from one study, told by just one man, get turned into stories about ‘science’ detecting ‘greater ice loss than we expected’. If Laxon didn’t know it, he was naive.


UPDATE:

Laxon published the following comment on the story at the Register.

Get the facts right Andrew
The statement in this article that these new results rely on just two years of data is, quite simply, false. If you wish to know why then listen to my Today interview (http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9744000/9744378.stm) where I state that the trends are derived by combining CryoSat-2 volume estimates with earlier (2003-2008) volume estimates from NASA’s ICESat mission [Kwok, JGR, 2009].
I also state that one must be cautious in extrapolating these trends forwards.
Seymour Laxon

Andrew Orlowski responds:

Cautious, Seymour?
A cautious scientist would be expected to go through the peer review process. You, by contrast, haven’t even published this work yet. It is not available for scrutiny. Nevertheless, you are willing to appear on the national media making dramatic long-term claims, based on *new* data of less than two years observations.
You have been anything but cautious.
Your science may be well turn out be sound, but until it has been independently scrutinized, we just don’t know. Your argument boils own to: “Trust me, I’m a scientist.”


William Connolley — who can’t even keep a job at Wikipedia, let alone Real Climate, such an angry rodent is he — writes at his blog, Weasel, Rat, Stoat, that Orlowski and I are ‘stupid’, ‘liars’ and ‘idiots’. He then deletes the word ‘stupid’ from my comment there, for its ‘incivility’. Environmentalists have never been very good at sticking to the standards they set for others. but that’s a trivial instance of it. The more important issue is that the emphasis on peer review and publication in credible journals is what made climate science better than anything the sceptics could throw at it.

Seymour Laxon joins in, amongst the commenters there, who seem much more interested in hurling abuse — and hackneyed abuse at that — than engaging in debate. Says Laxon:

Ben >>[in which I ask him for “the science” — something he wasn’t able to produce]

Ben has not actually asked me any questions about the science . If you look at the e-mail exchange you will see he has only asked “Could you explain where the research is published, so that we can see how you have produced these results from the data?”

Anyway for Ben and anyone else who’s actually interested in the science the ICESat paper on trends in ice volume (K09) is available to download here:

http://rkwok.jpl.nasa.gov/publications/Kwok.2009.JGR.pdf

In paragraph 39 the 2003-8 trends from ICESat are provided: “The trend in ice volume is -1237/-862 km3/a (fall/ winter).”

What I have done it to combine this ICESat time-series with 2 winters of CryoSat data processed in the same way as described in Giles et al., GRL, 2008, and validated in a similar manner the to comparisons shown in K09, figure 4.

So go and read those two papers and if you have any questions about the “science’ they describe (you’ll need to understand those papers to understand mine as the methodologies are more or less the same) then let us know.

In addition why not go here: file: http://psc.apl.washington.edu/wordpress/research/projects/arctic-sea-ice-volume-anomaly/data/ to download a simple ASCII text data. Once downloaded select out the September data (more or less day 244-274) since 2003, average the data for each year, and then use Excel to tell you what the slope in the data is. Then you’ll have your own trend in Arctic volume to report back.

PS. There are a dozen scientists and engineers on the paper which describes the CS-2/ICESat results.

So Laxon’s answer is: do your own science.

It’s a bit late for that now, though, isn’t it. His hundreds of headlines have been created over the last week.

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php/debates/copenhagen_article/8057</em>

The account of the climate debate that has driven most comment on it is that it is a debate between two camps: scientists on the one hand battle sceptics on the other. This misconception is the basis from which more mythology about the debate develops: scientists are united by a consensus, are of unimpeachable character and the science is unequivocal; sceptics are financed by oil interests, motivated by ‘ideology’ and are ‘anti-science’. But reactions to an incautiously worded press release announcing the discovery of an ‘unprecedented’ melting of Greenland’s ice sheet reveals that this understanding of the climate debate is deeply flawed. Nobody involved has a monopoly on science abuse or questionable motivations.

‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’,announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.

In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.

In plain sight of the fact that the melting was neither unexpected nor unprecedented, environmental journalists the world over picked up the story and ran with it. In theGuardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote: ‘The Greenland ice sheet melted at a faster rate this month than at any other time in recorded history, with virtually the entire ice sheet showing signs of thaw.’

As I have noted elsewhereGuardian journalists have a fetish for stories about melting ice. In September last year, following an unusually low measurement of Arctic sea-ice extent, Damian Carrington wrote: ‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity.’ But the low measurement of sea ice that Carrington pointed to disagreed with at least five other continuous measurements of the Arctic, and was thus unreliable. This kind of overreaction to scientific developments is a facile attempt to turn science into stories of political intrigue. When images of the Arctic taken by US spy satellites were declassified in 2009, the headline of an article by Goldenberg and Carrington proclaimed that ‘the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’ had been ‘revealed’.

The rash of excited articles about the dying cryosphere caused some surprising corrective responses from voices within climate research. Malte Humpert from the Arctic Institute Centre wrote a stinging response to the headline histrionics.  ‘The Greenland ice sheet, which is up to 3000+ metres thick, is not “melting away”, did not “melt in four days”, it is not “melting fast”, and Greenland did not “lose 97 per cent of its surface ice layer”.’ Humpert continued: ‘Most articles also exaggerated the importance of the melt event on global sea levels by explaining how sea levels would rise by up to 7.2 metres if the ice sheet were to melt.’

Similarly, Mark Brandon, a sea-ice scientist at the Open University, reproduced an interesting series of tweets and links to articles that showed the development of the current panic about ice, beginning with (alleged) comedian Marcus Brigstocke’s misconception of the story. To Brigstocke, an ‘unprecedented’ melt was the proverbial canary in the coal mine – a harbinger of doom. But as Brandon and his colleagues pointed out, it was a bit soon to be calling time on the human race. This was just weather.

Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out to be based not on research, but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.

But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.

Science has not put a stop to climate alarmism. The dynamics of the most barren and lifeless parts of the planet have become the ground on which the climate wars have been fought. And each ‘unprecedented’ move of any glacier, iceberg or sea ice becomes a moment of significance, seemingly telling us our future. Far from being scientific, prognosticating about the future of the world on the basis of the progress of ice is like reading frog entrails.

So what has science got to say about such fortune-telling, and what can it achieve? I asked Mark Brandon about what had moved him to write his corrective of the stories that followed NASA’s press release. ‘When I talk to people who don’t really know about polar science, they look at that picture of Greenland covered in red, and they think the whole ice sheet is melting’, says Brandon. ‘This isn’t a story about sea-level rise. But that is how virtually everyone has presented it. And that is how almost everyone has interpreted it as well.’

Brandon is keen to emphasise that this doesn’t mean that Arctic ice is not melting or that such melting is not a problem. Rather, he argues that overstating the problem is not helpful. ‘I don’t think many of these stories make much sense in isolation… If you view things in isolation then geographically it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense from a climate point of view, which is what I [and other scientists] were trying to say. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s melting. I think it is. But it’s going for the headline. It’s an easy media thing. It’s a weather event. The temperature [in Greenland] only reached over zero for a few days. It would be the equivalent of a weather event going over Britain.’

If Brandon’s caution reflects the consensus position on climate science, it seems to be out-of-kilter with the wider public discussion about the climate. Endless stories about glaciers melting, polar bears, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and sea ice form the view that there is virtually no ice left on the surface of the planet. And there is no doubting the influence of such alarmism. Just prior to the 2009 COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, then UK prime minister Gordon Brown told the world: ‘We should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue. Only last week, we saw new evidence of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice… And in just twenty-five years, the glaciers in the Himalayas which provide water for three-quarters of a billion people could disappear entirely… And the recent report of the Global Humanitarian Forum led by Kofi Annan suggests that… effects of climate change are already killing 300,000 people… and the total will rise to half a million each year by 2030’.

What was striking about Brown’s claims is that they owed nothing to science at all, let alone to the scientific consensus. Instead, the claims had come from the Caitlin mission to the Arctic – a PR and media stunt designed to highlight the shrinking of the Arctic – and from the Global Humanitarian Forum’s crude estimate of the effects of climate on poorer parts of the world that had emphasised climate, rather than lack of wealth, as the fundamental in the condition of the world’s poor.

Ironically, the deep cold of the Arctic caused the Caitlin’s equipment to fail, and ultimately the hostile weather meant the team had to be rescued. The Global Humanitarian Forum folded before the World Health Organisation’s recent announcement that incidences of malaria – one of the diseases the GHF predicted would increase with global warming – had fallen dramatically since 2000.

What most frustrates climate sceptics is the persistence of such junk science in the public and policy debates. Those who point out the problems of making arguments for policy on the back of PR stunts and junk science are labelled as ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’, motivated by profit, ‘ideology’ or simple bad-mindedness rather than the desire for a sensible debate about our relationship with the natural environment and concern about development. Brown’s errors are passed over with little criticism from science. But how to account for such errors in the first place?

One problem, says Brandon, is that a clear view of science is precluded by the expectations weighing on scientists, who may be reluctant to enter a fierce debate. He imagines a case of a researcher producing work that explained where climate models are going wrong: ‘If he or she stood up and talked to a journalist, that very good research intended to improve the models could have her work framed as saying that climate models are garbage, therefore the Arctic isn’t warming.’ In other words, in a highly polarised debate, scientific developments are taken to be decisive. Mistakes in computer models are taken to be the final word on the paucity of evidence of manmade climate change, and an anomalous measurement of Greenland’s ice sheet spells the end of the world.

Another problem is that journalists and policymakers simply do not understand the context of research. Brandon compares a lay reading of climate science to an attempt to read a Jane Austen novel at face value. Without historical knowledge of the grammatical nuances and peculiarities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society, the significance of events in Austen’s plots may be lost on the reader, and the motivations of the characters so much harder to fathom. And so it is with climate science: the caveats, context and cautions scientists attach to their work are forgotten by excited journalists who report it and who furthermore forget their roles as critics of authority, be it political or scientific.

The loss of scientific context does something to explain how the significance of scientific research is amplified by stories which cover them. But there is a wider context to scientific research – especially climate research – which a view of the deficit between scientists and journalists does not capture. After all, some scientists are involved to some extent in the creation of dramatic stories about the melting of ice and the peddling of alarm in the media. Following the NASA story, Edward Hannah, reader in climate change at the University of Sheffield, wrote in the Guardian that ‘the Greenland ice sheet is living on borrowed time’, and that ‘tens of centimetres’ of sea-level rise ‘would make many coastal communities more vulnerable to flooding and storm surges’. Such a conclusion had nothing to do with the story at hand and presupposed that it was beyond the means and minds of ‘coastal communities’ a century hence to move themselves away from the shore or build coastal protection.

It is this historical illiteracy that afflicts scientists as much as it moves journalists to promote alarmist interpretations of press releases from climate science – of which they are equally illiterate. Climate change excites the imaginations of individuals – journalists and scientists included – who labour under a narrative of humanity’s close relationship with nature. On this view, ‘coastal communities’ are incapable of responding to changing circumstances, even over the course of centuries. Thus a theoretical problem that may emerge thousands of years into the future becomes an immediate danger that can only be dealt with now, and in the way preferred by the alarmist narrative: ceasing the industrial and economic progress that would afford those coastal communities a better way of life, as well as better protection from the elements. An insidious and self-fulfilling prophecy turns the observation of an unremarkable melting of a few millimetres of ice into a story about several miles of melted ice, and metres of sea-level rise.

A belief persists that is possible strictly to set the boundaries of politics and science, such that science can issue politics with imperatives on the basis of what it detects in the material world. But clearly, the poorly conceived environmental narrative and pseudoscientific factoids persist across both science and politics. The damage done by the characterisation of the debate as one between scientists and sceptics, and the view of science and politics as easily delineated processes, is that progress is made in neither politics nor science. Even correcting the excesses of environmental alarmism – or for that matter, climate scepticism – means scientists taking sides in a political war. ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, you’re still going to upset people’, says Brandon.

This should give us a clue as to how damaging the expectations of science are. Science is expected to give decisive answers to the debate and unambiguous instructions to politics. Brandon crystallises the problem: ‘In a way, it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to be part of the public debate’, he says. ‘You’ve got no right to be quiet, because the implications of some of the things that people are determining are significant’. The scientist who produces research that either tends towards or against the alarmist picture of the world finds him or herself on that side. So why do any science or make comments in public at all?

As long as there is an expectation that science can only produce uncorrupted and objective accounts of the world, the immediate significance of melting ice (and other things) will continue to be overstated. And while there is an expectation that instructions to politics can be simply read off from scientific observations, anti-progress and anti-human narratives, of the kind epitomised by the Guardian’s alarmism, will persist. It is these tendencies which allow a few millimetres of melted ice to turn into stories about several miles of melting, and many meters of sea level rise.

One way out of this impasse might be to recognise the extent to which the dramatic storyline of climate catastrophe precedes science, afflicting even scientists. It’s not enough to simply say that this or that aspect of alarmism is overcooked; the problem is with the entire outlook. Science cannot tell you that melting ice is significant; it can only explain how much of it has melted. The significance of melting ice is determined by how much we believe the future depends on ice not melting.

I have an article up on Spiked today about the melting Greenland ice cover story from a few weeks back.

‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’, announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.

In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.

I had long and interesting chat with sea ice researcher at the Open University, Mark Brandon before writing the article. Mark and I probably disagree about a number of things, but on the expectations of science, we did seem to find some common ground. What emerged most strongly for me was that, in the current atmosphere of the climate debate, the possibilities of doing ‘value free’ research are greatly reduced: any scientific development which paints a picture of things being better or ‘worse than we thought’ has immediate implications for the debate.

Coincidentally, just before the article was published, the Today Programme on BBC R4 had a feature on some ongoing scientific research:

Preliminary results from a European Space Agency satellite measuring the thickness of Arctic ice suggests it is melting faster than previously thought.

Seymour Laxon of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling said the thickness of the ice could now be measured to an accuracy of 10cm (3.5in).

He said there has been a “very strong decline” in the thickness of the ice, and if the current trend continues, the Arctic could be ice-free on a summer’s day by the end of the decade.

Any suggestion that Arctic ice — summer sea ice, to be precise — is ‘melting faster than previously thought’ should raise the question ‘how fast did you think it was melting?’ As I discussed in the article, according to ‘scientists’, the Arctic would be ice-free next year.

Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out not be based on research but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.

But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.

And so it was, once again, that the narrative of doom preceded the science. ‘Preliminary results’ should not be interesting to any news desk. ‘Preliminary results’ are not results. And the interview proceeded, to abandon any attempt to reflect on the story critically, or to ask what the significance of the story really is. Ditto, the following headline from the Observer

Rate of Arctic summer sea ice loss is 50% higher than predicted
New satellite images show polar ice coverage dwindling in extent and thickness

The BBC’s Roger Harrabin tweeted,

Potentially alarming analysis of Arctic ice from UCL. Seymour Laxon interview on Today Prog. The experiment continues. http://bbc.in/SdI6D7

Only ‘potentially alarming’… But being used to alarm, nonetheless.

What seems to be beyond the capacities of BBC and Guardian/Observer journalists is to ask questions about how and when the measurements of Arctic ice took place.

As the website for the Cryosat-2 programme — the satellite that produced the ‘potentially alarming results’ — says,

CryoSat was launched in 2010 to measure sea-ice thickness in the Arctic, but data from the Earth-observing satellite have also been exploited for other studies. High-resolution mapping of the topography of the ocean floor is now being added to the ice mission’s repertoire.

So the data from which the ‘potentially alarming’ result was produced consists of a series that began in April 2010, and has thus only had the chance to record Arctic conditions over two summers and two winters.

Some results from Cryosat-2 were announced in April this year.

After nearly a year and a half of operations, CryoSat has yielded its first seasonal variation map of Arctic sea-ice thickness. Results from ESA’s ice mission were presented today at the Royal Society in London.

In June 2011, the first map of Arctic sea-ice thickness was unveiled, using CryoSat data acquired between January and February of that year.
Now, the complete 2010–11 winter season data have been processed to produce a seasonal variation map of sea-ice thickness.

This is the first map of its kind generated using data from a radar altimeter and at such a high resolution compared to previous satellite measurements.

If these really are the first data relating to the volume of ice available to science, then it really is far too early for researchers to be claiming to be able to put a date on the demise of summer Arctic sea ice. Moreover, and never mind the failure of journalists to subject scientists’ claims to scrutiny, what was Seymour Laxon of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling doing, going on a mainstream news programme — perhaps the most listened-to news programme of the entire country — to explain that science was able to put a date on the terminal point of Arctic sea ice? The only thing he should have been able to say is that ‘it’s too early to say’.

Anything else is, frankly, a lie. The variation in sea ice volume detected by Cryosat-2 may well have been no more than weather. In order to make the predictions that Laxon made, he would have to assume that any variation can only be accounted for by anthropogenic climate change, and that the trend it detected would continue.

This is as clear a case of environmental politics preceding the science as any other alarmist story. I have no idea whether or not Laxon consciously allowed himself to speak prematurely on the decline of sea ice, and I do not care. The alarmist story is allowed to proceed in spite of facts, and without scrutiny or criticism.


UPDATE

Paul Matthews let me know by twitter that I was wrong to say the measurements were based just on Cryosat2. In the interview, he explains that the data were produced by using Cryosat2 and NASA’s Icestat satellite. Either way, however, the data he refers are measurements still only taken since 2010, which I still believe is far too short a time series to say anything about trends, let alone safely projecting them.


UPDATE 2

Andrew Orlowski has an interesting article about Laxon’s claims over at the Register.

Laxon has generated a torrent of headlines in the media. It’s the silly season, of course, so this is to be expected. But what most surprises me is that I can’t track down any evidence of the ‘research’ this is supposed to be from, nor even a press release. All this headline-making seems to have happened just on the basis of one man’s opinion. This opinion, from one man, gets turned into science, produced by ‘scientists’.

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