Iceberg Stories Are a Wet Lettuce

In the Guardian yesterday, the paper’s US Environmental correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg writes:

The world’s ocean surfaces had their warmest summer temperatures on record, the US national climatic data centre said today.

Climate change has been steadily raising the earth’s average temperature in recent decades, but climatologists expected additional warming this year and next due to the influence of El Niño.

However, as Bob Tisdale and Anthony Watts point out at the latter’s blog, there are many reasons to be cautious about taking the claim at face value. It is the product of one dataset, and is not supported with data from satellites. Indeed, according to the UAH satellite record, the average temperature of the world in August was just 0.23°C above the average.

But that’s not what really piqued our interest. Goldenburg’s story finishes,

The report also noted the continuing retreat in Arctic sea ice over the summer. Sea ice covered an average of 6.3m sq kilometres (2.42m sq miles) during August, according to the national snow and ice data centre. That was 18.4% the 1979-2000 average.

The press release from which Goldenburg lifts her story says

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Arctic sea ice covered an average of 2.42 million square miles during August. This is 18.4 percent below the 1979-2000 average extent, and is generally consistent with a decline of August sea ice extent since 1979.

The difference between ‘18.4 percent’, and ‘18.4 percent below’ is 63.2 percent. But of course, it may well just be a typo than a reflection of Goldenberg’s misunderstanding of the science. But notice another interpretation. The original quote speaks of the 2009 ice extent representing the continuation of a general trend, ‘consistent with a decline of August sea ice extent since 1979’, ie, not as much ice as there was, once. But this is transformed in Goldenberg’s copy, and becomes ‘the continuing retreat in Arctic sea ice over the summer’, which is palpably not true.

Perhaps you think we’re nit-picking by pulling Goldenberg up for what might well be the result of an honest misunderstanding married to a slack rewording of the press release. But what is strange is her apparent complete lack of surprise at the notion that summer ice has declined by a factor of five in such a short time. And that’s after two years of recovery.

The minimum extent of Arctic sea ice in 2007 was 4.13 million Km2. in 2008 it was 4.67 million Km2. This year, it looks as though it is 5.25 million Km2. This represents an increase of 13% between 2007 and 2008, and an increase of 12% for 2008 to 2009, or an increase of 27% between 2007 and 2009. This is a substantial increase, yet Goldenberg puts emphasis on the loss, in spite of the rather more significant gain. As we have written previously, this is owed to the tendency of those who put much store in the progress of Arctic ice, hoping that it will add power to their alarmist narratives. When the ice doesn’t behave, the miserable story has to be told by a mathematical sleight of hand. Perhaps we should just be grateful that Goldenberg did not extrapolate back from her own made-up figure to discover that summer Arctic ice actually disappeared two years ago.

It’s not entirely Goldenberg’s fault. She has been primed by years of press releases from the likes of NOAA and NSIDC to believe that the ice is retreating on an almost daily basis. As we have noted before, in their attempts to maintain the excitement, these agencies are caught between the temptation to overplay the importance of new datapoints that reinforce the idea of a downward trend, and the need to downplay those that don’t fit easily with the catastrophe narrative. Regardless of where a new datapoint falls on the graph, it’s a portent of doom.

At its most ludicrous, this can result in statements about single datapoints that serve as a warning of both imminent disaster and the dangers of relying on single datapoints. For example:

Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. We will know if the 2008 record will also fall in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues.

But in bending over backwards to make sure that no one gets the silly idea, on the evidence of a single datapoint, that global warming has stopped, they open the door to alarmist nonsense every time they update their graphs.

This is not the first time Goldenberg has tried to lick an iceberg and got herself stuck. In July, she teamed up with Damian Carrington for a story in the Observer:

‘Revealed: the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’.

The writers tell us that images taken from a US spy satellite ‘reveal the devastating impact of global warming in the Arctic‘. The images, now declassified, were ‘kept secret by Washington during the presidency of George W Bush’. The saintly Obama, by contrast, ‘is currently trying to galvanise Congress and the American public to take action to halt catastrophic climate change’. What separates Bush, the evil denier, from Obama, the saintly prophet, is their treatment of a cold, hostile, uninhabited, tract of frozen sea.

Instead of being something which causes immediate concern in its own right, the real importance of images of open sea where there was once ice is that it gives seemingly geological scale to environmentalists’ claims about our influence over the planet and its likely consequences. Where scientific opinions and catastrophic story lines have failed to mobilise popular support for environmentalism, various greens appeal to our ability to register the difference between what once happened and what seems to be happening now. Accordingly, Goldenberg and Carrington present us with the before and after pictures.

This picture is, according to the article, part of a series that are ‘the first graphic images of how the polar ice sheets are retreating in the summer’. This is sheer nonsense. Archived and near real-time Images of polar ice have been available to the public via the internet for years. The Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois have, since 2004, run a website called The Cryosphere Today, which allows users to compare the ice cover of the Arctic on any two dates. Here, for example, is an image depicting the same information as the recently declassified spy-satellite pictures.

So keen are the ice researchers at the University of Illinois, there is even an application that can be run on web-enabled mobile phones. The iPod generation now have no excuse for being ignorant of the state of almost entirely uninhabited, entirely hostile, and least interesting regions of Earth.

The US National Snow and Ice Data Center provide a similar means to staying in touch with the latest developments at the frozen North. (And who wouldn’t want to?) Using the Google Earth application, NSIDC aim to ‘help people better understand the cryosphere—where the world is frozen—by making our data more visible and interactive. What is available at the NSIDC is a vast array of images and data, none of which has been classified, all of which has been available for years. If you felt so inclined, you could even compare sea ice extent in July 2007 and 2008, to show just how remarkably quickly the Arctic recovered from its historic low.

Or if you prefer, you could just go to the NSIDC homepage for ‘daily image updates of Arctic sea ice’.

None of this is secret information. The only difference with the declassified images is the level of detail. Images in the public domain were only available at resolutions of 15 meters (each ‘dot’ in the picture represents an area of 15 meters square), whereas spy satellites create images at a resolution of one meter. Unless you are a climate specialist this makes no difference whatsoever. Prior to the release of these images, no researcher with an interest in the cryosphere would have been ignorant of the extent of sea ice off the coast of Alaska in 2007 as it stood in contrast to the previous year’s ice.

So what’s the big secret, and why all the fuss? On the 15th of July, the US National Research Council released a report called ‘Scientific Value of Arctic Sea Ice Imagery Derived Products’. According to a NASA press release, the authors of the report believe that the higher resolution images would significantly extend scientific understanding of the processes driving the annual cycle of melting and freezing. There already exists a relationship between science and the military in which images produced by surveillance hardware is shared. Declassified images have, for a number of years, been put into the public domain through a program called Literal Imagery Derived Products (LIDPs). The satellites that have produced these new images have, at the request of the same scientific community in 1999, been recording images from locations within the Arctic region since 2005. The report made an argument for the release of the images. Just a few hours later, the Interior Department declassified them.

Goldenberg and Carrington present the release of the images as, pardon the pun, a sea change in the attitude of the US government. But the satellites began recording the regions in 2005 – while Bush was president. If there had been no intention to make these images available to the scientists who requested them, why generate them in the first place? Moreover, the two writers seemingly make the case that an executive decision was made, by Bush in the first instance and Obama in the second, to respectively conceal, and reveal the images. Yet there is no evidence in the article, or on the web, that either president made any such decisions. It is only in the imaginations of bored journalists that the timing of the declassification of the images represents the termination of a conspiracy to deceive the public instigated by Bush. The facts are plain: nothing that wasn’t already widely known has been revealed by these images; the images are not useful to any political ends, either to inform the public, or to demonstrate the fact of global warming; there is no evidence presented that there was an attempt to conceal these images; there would have been no reason to keep the images secret; it was under Bush’s administration that spy satellites began recording images from the locations in question. There was no story.

There is, however, the story in the heads of Goldenberg and Carrington. Routinely in this kind of narrative, the plight of polar bears, summer sea ice melt, global warming, and anthropogenic CO2 are conflated as the one and same thing, as each other’s cause and effect, rather than treated as phenomena that have distinct and complex causes. In this story, polar bears are killed by increased ice melting, which is caused by global warming, both of which will continue to increase, and all of which is caused by anthropogenic CO2, which is caused by us. These causal relationships are presented as unassailable scientific facts with no questions of complexity, nuance, or degree permitted. To argue that the progress of Arctic ice melt may well have a cause that is independent of the Earth’s warming is to deny both. To argue that polar bear populations may be increasing, or may be suffering for reasons other than ice melt is to deny global warming. Because ultimately, at the end of this chain of reasoning is an argument that owes nothing whatsoever to science: George Bush tried to hide all of this from you.

All of which is to say that the story about the progress of ice escapes its scientific context to illustrate the political narrative that the likes of Goldenberg impose over it. It is the vehicle through which she can submit Bush-bashing copy, months after the end of his presidency, allowing her to stand Bush in ecological contrast to Obama. That Goldenberg gets the scientific facts wrong, and struggles to interpret them correctly, and fails to subject her own stark misapprehension to scrutiny, is only half the story – she then uses her own confusion to create a picture of political conspiracies against scientific truth. In no small way this demonstrates the extent to which the political story exists prior to the science, and needs it. If the ice wasn’t melting, Goldenberg would have to make it up… Oh…

Cut and Paste Journalism

BBC bosses today tried to make excuses for the cut-and-paste job by BBC science journalist, Susan Watts, as discovered by Tony at Harmless Sky recently. Answering criticism on Watts’ blog, Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon said:

We did edit sections of the speech to reflect the elements in it that referred to Science. The aim was to give people an impression or montage of what Obama said about science in his inauguration speech. This was signposted to audiences with fades between each point. It in no way altered the meaning or misrepresented what the President was saying. You can look for yourself above.

If this is true, it means that the editorial team at BBC Newsnight are shockingly naive. If that is true, then we would like to know, what are they doing producing the networks flagship current affairs magazine programme?

Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt with respect to their editorial oversight, by which we mean that we accept that they are naive, the feature drips with the kind of ideological prejudice that any run-of-the-mill eco-warrior can muster. This is not news, nor is it analysis. It is projection.

Here is a transcript of the feature, Restoring science to its rightful place, with our commentary.

OBAMA: We will restore science to its rightful place [snip] roll back the spectre of a warming planet [snip] we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

As has been pointed out, this is a cut and paste job, which sets up the background to Watts’ presentation. Peter Rippon claims this has been done innocently, and that ‘fades between each point’ underscore the ‘montage’ of different parts of Obama’s speech, as an ‘impression’ of what he had said, not what he had actually said. But these images are not of Obama, but of a victorian green house in London’s Kew Gardens. Why would different shots of 19th Century greenhouse architecture make it obvious to viewers that what they were hearing was a ‘montage’?

WATTS: President Obama couldn’t have been clearer today, and for most scientists, his vote of confidence will have come not a moment too soon.

So here is Watts’ naked position: Bush was anti science. And now ‘most scientists’ are happy because Bush is gone. Bush = anti-science; Obama = pro-science. Bush is a baddy, and Obama is a goody. Science says so. It proves it. Understand?

Watts says that Obama ‘couldn’t have been clearer’, but she had to splice his words together to get him to make her point.

You don’t need to be a Bush fan to find this kind of retrospective shallow. We’re not Bush fans. Yet, throughout the last eight years, what has struck us is that science has become the stick with which to beat Bush, not because he really stood against science, but because his critics – not just the Democrats – lacked any real substance either. That is to say, as we have in the past, that science is a last-resort of vacuous politics: it fails to make a persuasive case on its own terms, and so borrows authority from ‘science’. Like trying to use ‘science’ to prove that something is immoral, what this reveals is the intellectual exhaustion of the critic.

Watts continues:

In the eight years of the Bush presidency, the world saw the Arctic ice cap shrink to a record Summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions, and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

So Bush melted the ice cap, right?

There has certainly been a shift in rhetoric from ‘urgent to panicky’, but that shift is not justified by ‘the science’. The IPCC’s AR4 gave no reason to believe that thermageddon was any closer than it was when its predecessor AR3 came out. To make it sound like it did, environmentalist commentators – notably those at the BBC – also had to cut and paste.

And as we have pointed out recently, the panicky tone of environmentalists is owed not to the emergence of new climate research but to their need to sustain leverage over a sympathetic establishment. In fact, the big stories over the last few years – the prospect of an Arctic free of summer ice, fears about peak oil after price hikes, and predictions of ‘warmest summers on record’ – all failed to materialise. If recent history shows anything, it is that environmentalists have reached the point of peak doom.

President Bush came to power at the start of a new decade, a new century, and what many thought would be a new era for science. The news that scientists had pieced together an early draft of the human genome had given a palpable lift to the end of the Clinton presidency.

There are many things you can say about the end of the Clinton administration, but ‘palpable lift’ isn’t really one of them. Clinton’s years were characterised by scandal and political crisis, offset by a very aggressive foreign policy – pretty much what the ensuing Bush administration consisted of. For example, as CNN reported in 1998:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Saying “there will be no sanctuary for terrorists,” President Clinton on Thursday said the U.S. strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan and a facility in Sudan are part of “a long, ongoing struggle between freedom and fanaticism.” […]

The president said he ordered the strike against bin Laden and his compatriots because of “compelling information they were planning additional terrorist attacks against our citizens and others with the inevitable collateral casualties and .. seeking to acquire chemical weapons and other dangerous weapons.”

Doesn’t that sound familiar? As it turned out, the Sudanese factory Clinton bombed turned out to be making pharmaceuticals, not WMD. Just a few months later:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — From the Oval Office, President Clinton told the nation Wednesday evening why he ordered new military strikes against Iraq. The president said Iraq’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors presented a threat to the entire world. “Saddam (Hussein) must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons,” Clinton said.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? The point we are making here is that it is difficult for people – journalists especially – to locate territory from which to criticise Bush. Clearly, the War on Terror – and all its rhetoric – had roots in the Clinton era. The Bush administration doesn’t look so different, after all. Different styles, maybe, but the same substance. Unless, as Watts claims, they took different positions on science:

Science was riding high. But Bush was less attentive.

But According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, things aren’t so simple:

How can it be said that Bush was ‘anti-science’ if, as the AAAS seem to indicate, research budgets increased during his administration? In ignorance of what she speaks, Watts continues:

Religion, or at least the religious vote, informed Bush policy. His very public distaste for stem-cell research mattered because it raised public suspicion of science. Creationism has grown stronger, to the point that more Americans now believe in the biblical story of creation than evolution.

It’s not as much Bush’s hostility to ‘science’ that Watts worries about, but the failure of his critics to use ‘science’ to influence public policy. One may well say that Bush’s policies didn’t reflect ‘scientific’ opinion. But the point we have made here, many times, is that science cannot produce moral arguments. Science cannot tell you that it is ‘right’ to abort or research on a foetus. These matters, which seemingly characterise the debate that was influenced by religious attitudes, are only illuminated by science to the extent that it says what may be possible to achieve. The problem, as we have outlined in the past, is that Bush’s critics hide their shame – their inability to make moral arguments – behind science. It is a fig leaf.

Watts is deeply confused. According to her, it is ‘the religious vote’ that influences Bush. But in the very next sentence, it is Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ that raises public suspicion, seemingly with the effect of increasing the prevalence of creationism. One moment, Bush is weak because he respond to the vote, the next he is able to manipulate it. Whether we agree with Bush or not, Watts’ complaint is that Bush succeeded in making an argument to the public through the democratic process. Her complaint is with democracy. The science that Watts believes trumps democracy is good, old fashioned arrogance.

And anyway, where did Watts get the idea that adherence to Biblical interpretations of life on Earth increased under Bush? Not from Gallup, which has data going back to 1982:

Bush’s ‘distaste for stem-cell research’ is a favorite of those wishing to cast him in the role of enemy of science. But Watts’ statement simplifies the political reality to the point that it bears no relationship to the truth. US policy requires that Federal funds cannot be used for research on embryonic stem cells. State-sponsored researchers can and do work on stem cells from other sources. And meanwhile, university researchers can and do work on embryonic stem cells – just so long as they don’t use federal funds (which makes for some complicated partitioning of lab equipment in many a US university department). For what it’s worth, we, too, are not impressed by US stem-cell policies. But neither are we impressed by the simplistic portrayal of Bush’s stance, especially when the US’s regulation of embryonic SC research is mirrored in the policies of a host of European nations, including such models of Liberal democracy as Germany and Denmark.

Watts:

Scientists have got used to attempts to silence them. But now they are speaking out again. Unlike economic recession and wars which pass, climate change does not and there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return. In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world.

On her blog, Watts expands on her claims that scientists have been silenced, in a post that Asher Mullard, an editor at the science journal Nature, describes as ‘a meaty overview of a light at the end of the tunnel after 8 long years for scientists’…

Just last week a Nasa scientist, Jim Hansen, whom Bush had tried to silence in the past warned that Obama has just four years to save the world. But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already promoted many to top advisory positions… crucially on energy policy.

We’ve dealt with Hansen’s ‘four years to save the world’ claim elsewhere. But note that, in Watts’ world, the speculative splutterings of a single rogue scientist become ‘In fact scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world’.

If Bush did try to silence Hansen, he didn’t try very hard. Hansen has barely been out of the news this century. According to the Washington Times:

A NASA scientist who said the Bush administration muzzled him because of his belief in global warming yesterday acknowledged to Congress that he’d done more than 1,400 on-the-job interviews in recent years.

To pick but one example from his vast output, in 2007, we reported on Hansen’s 3000-word article in New Scientist where he claimed that sea level rise will be orders of magnitude faster than IPCC projections suggest. When the same magazine, in the same month, reported on Harvard scientist Willie Soon’s paper in the journal Ecological Complexity, which challenged received wisdom that climate change is imperilling polar bears, the scientific argument was ignored in favour of speculation about Soon’s alleged links to the oil industry, and that the research was part of an orchestrated campaign to undermine the environmental movement’s use of the polar bear as an icon. Who’s being silenced?

Hansen is Watts’ representative scientist. And yet he departs from ‘the consensus’ as spectacularly as any executive of ExxonMobil – he just happens to do so in a more politically correct direction.

Back to the transcript:

But unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He’s already appointed several to leading advisory positions. And although he has to deal with internal squabbles about whether cap and trade or a carbon tax is the best way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, at least the Obama team does agree on the goal.

As did all the other presidential candidates. And as do the Socialist Workers, the UK Conservative Party, the far-right British National Party and everybody else.

So Obama has a unique opportunity to fix the recession and fix climate change at the same time. He just has to have the nerve to follow through. And this year of all years, leadership matters, because the world hopes to thrash out a global deal to cut emissions. So if he does stick to his promises on renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage, and hybrid vehicles, he’ll help loosen the grip that fossil fuels hold on all our lives.

So Obama can fix the recession and save the world from global warming… But why stop there? Maybe we could ask him to find a cure for cancer and the common cold too, by next week? Oh, and then there’s that eternal question he could answer – ‘why are we here?’ Obama’s to-do list grows as the people reporting on his progress empty their heads of reason. Watts’ analysis is, as we said at the beginning of this post, not journalism, but projection. Her story says nothing about Obama and his policies, nor does it accurately reflect the role of science and its relationship with public policy, nor does it even give a plausible account of the last decade’s political developments. It doesn’t even tell you anything useful about climate change. It is all about Watts, her hopes and her prejudices, informed only by ignorance, hidden behind a veneer of scientific authority.

There’s another question perhaps Obama can answer by, like, yesterday: what are science correspondents actually for?