When a Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, Environmentalists Just Flap

We’re glad to see that the BBC has removed the error we flagged up on Thursday. Where it said

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 5.4C rise in tropical temperatures expected by 2100. 

it now reads

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 2-4 degrees Celsius rise in tropical temperatures predicted for the late 21st Century. 

It’s certainly not as ridiculously alarmist as it was. But we are no less confused as to where the new figure, 2-4 degrees Celsius, comes from than we were with the last one. It looks like some sort of hybrid between AR4 projections for tropical sea temperature increase and global average surface temperature rise. Which is odd, given that temperatures in the tropics are expected to increase less than those at the poles and temperate regions.

Anyway, we missed a trick with our last post on the issue. As commenters have reminded us, mosquitoes are insects too. But they’re the sort of insects that spread tropical diseases and, given that we already know that climate change change will be a Bad Thing, they must, therefore, be expected to buck the trend and increase in numbers and range as a result of climate change, spreading tropical disease as they go. Alex Cull puts it rather nicely:

Cuddly species such as polar bears and koalas, pretty butterflies and other cute creatures such as pandas and dolphins will suffer massive extinctions. At the same time, we will see a rise in nasty, unpleasant species such as weasels and wolverines, anopheles mosquitos, icky bacteria and other creepy-crawlies such as slugs, snails and puppy-dog tails. No arguments please. 

Climate change is bad for insects; but it’s good for bad insects. Another BBC article reveals that it is good for British butterflies, too – but in a bad way…

Butterflies need a warm summer in order to help numbers recover from last year’s washout, say conservationists.

Data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showed that eight species were at an all-time low as a result of an unsuccessful summer in 2007.
 

The main reason behind the decline was an above average rainfall, which meant the insects, such as the common blue, had fewer chances to feed or breed.

In other words, Britain’s butterflies would benefit from the sort of warmer, drier summer that we are told we’ll be getting more of as a result of climate change. (Although given that the BBC also reported recently that the “Next decade ‘may see no warming'”, what are the chances of that?) And yet, UK Biodiversity Minister (yes, there really is such a thing) Joan Ruddock still manages to twist things around so that it becomes a climate change scare story:

Butterfly populations also indicate the speed and extent of climate change. We will provide every encouragement for those working to conserve them. 

OK, so it’s hard to blame the BBC this time. But imagine the headline had the butterflies suffered after a particularly hot, dry summer.

These various reports on single studies/comments support an argument made a while back by Joe Kapinsky:

the genre of ‘study published today’ stories holds back understanding rather than enhancing it 

Science just doesn’t work in the way that the media generally portrays it, as an accumulation of individual studies that are like separate pieces in a giant jigsaw of truth. Science proceeds by replication, rejection, corroboration, falsification, stumbling up blind alleys, reformulation etc etc. It’s messy.

The only purpose this sort of science reporting serves is drama. It’s science as soap opera – it’s what we tune into when there is nothing else worth watching. It merely provides environmental politics with its latest installment of salacious talking points.

Fat People are Killing the Butterflies

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.

How the Marxists Have Fallen (For It)

Over at Political Affairs, which promises “Marxist Thought online”, an article published today warns that, according to the latest IPCC report,

Mass extinction of species is likely within 60-70 years, on a scale larger than most of the five major extinction events that have occurred in the earth’s history.

But neither of the reports issued so far this year say anything of the sort. The only mention of extinction in either of the reports are in Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – Summary for Policymakers, Working Group II:

Approximately 20-30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5-2.5°C.

and

There is a risk of significant biodiversity loss through species extinction in many areas of tropical Latin America.

These largely unquantified statements are so far removed from the alarmism in Political Affairs that there seems little point going into any greater depth about the article’s scientific merit.

We can safely assume that this kind of alarmism is the way the magazine thinks the masses will be roused. But as we pointed out yesterday, there is little difference between the ways in which the left and the right stretch scientific reports beyond recognition. So what is the difference between the establishment and the revolutionaries?