Hari Drama Hari Gaia

In Friday’s Independent, Johann Hari has achieved a quite remarkable feat.

How I wish that the global warming deniers were right
Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet?

In just 1400 words he manages to cram in just about every fallacy from the environmentalist’s handbook: he appeals to the dodgiest of authorities, sells politics, catastrophism and factoids as scientific truth, misrepresents his opponents’ arguments, cherrypicks data, explains human behaviour in biologically deterministic terms and politics in environmentally deterministic ones, and resorts to the green equivalent of Pascal’s wager while accusing ‘deniers’ of religious zeal.

So let’s start at the very beginning, where he ploughs straight in with the ultimate in appeals to authority:

Every day, I pine for the global warming deniers to be proved right. I loved the old world – of flying to beaches wherever we want, growing to the skies, and burning whatever source of energy came our way. I hate the world to come that I’ve seen in my reporting from continent after continent – of falling Arctic ice shelves, of countries being swallowed by the sea, of vicious wars for the water and land that remains. When I read the works of global warming deniers like Nigel Lawson or Ian Plimer, I feel a sense of calm washing over me. The nightmare is gone; nothing has to change; the world can stay as it was.

That’s right – the authority he cites is himself. The insufferably misanthropic and self-important ‘comedian’ Marcus Brigstocke, who has also been to the Arctic to see melting ice – twice – so you don’t have to, did the same thing on a recent edition of the BBC’s Question Time (available in the UK only):

I’ve visited the Arctic twice, and the ice is disappearing. I can tell you that the Inuit people that I met in Greenland, who are not part of some grand conspiracy as Melanie [Phillips] might have it, will tell you, year on year, they are seeing dramatic changes. The ice is reducing significantly. You know, I helped a team of scientists from the National Oceanography centre to carry out their experiments [etc]

We should believe Hari and Brigstocke, their argument goes, because they have access to information that we do not. It’s the very stuff of dodgy dossiers. (Talking of which, Hari initially supported the invasion of Iraq, so we look forward to another article at some point where he confesses how ‘terribly wrong‘ he has been on climate change, too.) What’s more, merely witnessing melting polar ice for yourself is merely evidence that polar ice melts when it’s warming enough. There is a gaping crevasse between what Hari and Brigstocke have seen and what they think it is evidence for – which is that catastrophe beckons. Hari and Brigstocke’s personal investments in the plight of the Arctic means we should be less, not more willing to believe them.

Back to Hari:

But then I go back to the facts. However much I want them to be different, they sit there, hard and immovable. Nobody disputes that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, like a blanket holding in the Sun’s rays. Nobody disputes that we are increasing the amount of those greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And nobody disputes that the world has become considerably hotter over the past century. (If you disagree with any of these statements, you’d fail a geography GCSE).

The funny thing here is that Hari is correct that nobody would dispute any of these statements, to the extent that even those he has just introduced as ‘deniers’, Ian Plimer and Nigel Lawson, do not dispute them. We can only assume he has read neither of them. Plimer and Lawson hold variously that such statements do not lead inevitably to planetary disaster, that the human influence on warming trends is overstated, that other influences are understated, that the climate system is rather more complicated than such a one-dimensional portrayal would suggest, and that a single-pronged attack on CO2 emissions is undesirable – not that the greenhouse effect is not real or that the world has not been warming. He continues:

Yet half our fellow citizens are choosing to believe the deniers who say there must be gaps between these statements big enough to fit an excuse for carrying on as we are. Shrieking at them is not going to succeed.

What Hari cannot imagine is that large swathes of the public are choosing not to believe the pseudo-scientific hyperbole of alarmists like Hari, even though his very article provides them with all the reason they need. Indeed, in his next breath he resorts to writing off public opinion as the product of primaeval biological urges rather than the result of considered judgement of the available evidence and arguments:

Our first response has to be to accept that this denial is an entirely natural phenomenon. The facts of global warming are inherently weird, and they run contrary to our evolved instincts. If you burn an odourless, colourless gas in Europe, it will cause the Arctic to melt and Bangladesh to drown and the American Mid-West to dry up? By living our normal lives, doing all the things we have been brought up doing, we can make great swathes of the planet uninhabitable? If your first response is incredulity, then you’re a normal human being.

Talk about a backhanded compliment. But as a ‘normal human being’, you are a slave not only to your pre-programmed selfish desires, but also to the mind-controlling propaganda of big business:

It’s tempting to allow this first response to harden into a dogma, and use it to cover your eyes. The oil and gas industries have been spending billions to encourage us to stay stuck there, because their profits will plummet when we make the transition to a low-carbon society. But the basic science isn’t actually very complicated, or hard to grasp. As more carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, the world gets warmer…

Meanwhile, normal human beings are apparently impervious to the onslaught of PR from green pressure groups. As we’ve shown elsewhere, the funds available to the likes of Greenpeace and WWF are orders of magnitude greater than that spent by the ‘well-funded denial machine’.

And there’s more cherry-picking where that came from:

…Every single year since 1917 has been hotter than 1917. Every single year since 1956 has been hotter than 1956. Every single year since 1992 has been hotter than 1992. And on, and on. If we dramatically increase the carbon dioxide even more – as we are – we will dramatically increase the warming. Many parts of the world will dry up or flood or burn.

According to the Met Office’s annual global data series 1850-1998, 1917 and 1992 were exceptionally cold years: there were only 5 years cooler than 1917 in the preceding 66 years; after 1992, the next coldest year was 1878. And we can all play Hari’s game: every year since 1998 has been cooler than 1998, for example.

Moreover, all Hari has achieved here is to restate his initial uncontested premise that the world has been warming over the last century. Just saying it a bit louder this time doesn’t make it any more important or dangerous, or informative as to how to respond. Which is why he has also had to escalate the alarmism.

This is such an uncomfortable claim that I too I have tried to grasp at any straw that suggests it is wrong. One of the most tempting has come in the past few weeks, when the emails of the Hadley Centre at the University of East Anglia were hacked into, and seem on an initial reading to show that a few of their scientists were misrepresenting their research to suggest the problem is slightly worse than it is. Some people have seized on it as a fatal blow – a Pentagon Papers for global warming.

But then I looked at the facts. It was discovered more than a century ago that burning fossil fuels would release warming gases and therefore increase global temperatures, and since then, hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently reached the conclusion that it will have terrible consequences…

By now, Hari has drifted far from his reference point of the physics of the greenhouse and is bobbing around helplessly in a sea of catastrophism. The gap can be bridged only by a blatant untruth. Having started the paragraph with the statement that what followed were the true facts, he just makes it up. ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists’? And there we were thinking that the ‘2500 scientists of the IPCC‘ claim was overstating things. All the scientists, in all the world, across all the scientific sub-disciplines, probably only amount to hundreds of thousands. And it gets worse with almost every additional word: ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently‘ reached the same conclusion? Is that even humanly possible? Does he think that each scientist has their own personal ivory tower or something? ‘Hundreds of thousands of scientists have independently reached the conclusion that it will have terrible consequences‘?

A good argument made by just a single scientist trumps even hundreds of thousands of scientists that exist only in someone’s head. So let us quote the University of East Anglia climate scientist, and former director of the Tyndall Centre, Mike Hulme, who is concerned that science is being used to provide certainty over big, complex political issues:

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year’s global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science.

Meanwhile Hari hasn’t even got to the end of his paragraph:

…It would be very surprising if, somewhere among them, there wasn’t a charlatan or two who over-hyped their work. Such people exist in every single field of science (and they are deplorable).

So let’s knock out the Hadley Centre’s evidence. Here are just a fraction of the major scientific organisations that have independently verified the evidence that man-made global warming is real, and dangerous: Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, L’Academie des Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina, the UK’s Royal Society, the Academia Brasileira de Ciencias, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the US Environmental Protection Agency… I could fill this entire article with these names.

Well, at least he’s not citing citing himself this time. But he is wrong to say that these institutions have independently verified the evidence. Research bodies such as NASA and NOAA do, like Hadley, collect and analyse data, and test hypotheses, but Hari is lumping these together with scientific academies and professional bodies that represent their membership politically, which have simply issued position statements to the effect that the world has been warming, that anthropogenic greenhouse gases probably have much to with it, and that this presents problems. To ‘knock out the Hadley Centre’s evidence’ is to write off, among many other lines of research, its global surface temperature record (HADCRUT), which, along with NASA’s GISTEMP, is perhaps the most scientifically important and politically influential climate datsets in existence.

A further sign of Hari’s ignorance on the matter is that it was the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Centre (CRU) that was hacked, not Hadley. And Hadley is part of the UK Met Office, not, as Hari says, UEA. But Hadley produces HADCRUT in conjunction with CRU, so by Hari’s reckoning Hadley and CRU should both be ‘knocked out’. Which leaves him with a single temperature record, and a bunch of position statements from organisations that exist to represent their members’ interests. Last year, we took a look at the gestation of the statement issued by one of those professional bodies – the American Geophysical Union – and argued that these statements should be seen as political attempts to put science centre-stage of climate debates rather than objective appraisals of the state of knowledge.

And they haven’t only used one method to study the evidence. They’ve used satellite data, sea level measurements, borehole analysis, sea ice melt, permafrost melt, glacial melt, drought analysis, and on and on. All of this evidence from all of these scientists using all these methods has pointed in one direction. As the conservative journalist Hugo Rifkind put it, the Hadley Centre no more discredits climate science than Harold Shipman discredits GPs.

Climategate may not discredit climate science, but neither does climate science uphold Hari’s apocalyptic vision.

A study for the journal Science randomly sampled 928 published peer-reviewed scientific papers that used the words “climate change”. It found that 100 per cent – every single one – agreed it is being fuelled by human activity. There is no debate among climate scientists. There are a few scientists who don’t conduct research into the climate who disagree, but going to them to find out how global warming works is a bit like going to a chiropodist and asking her to look at your ears.

The Science paper Hari refers to is this one by Naomi Oreskes. She does indeed find evidence for a consensus. But it is a consensus only that ‘the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling’. What Hari does not mention is that Oreskes concluded that:

The question of what to do about climate change is also still open

For Hari, the fact of climate change is equivalent to the moral imperative he thinks it produces. To say that ‘climate change is real’, is to say ‘what is to be done’. As with so many other activists, there is no argument about how to interpret climate change statistics to work out a sensible response. So any degree of scepticism, or any argument about how to respond to degrees of climate change with degrees of responses naturally returns Hari to the core, binary, fact: ‘climate change is real’.

Part of the confusion in the public mind seems to stem from the failure to understand that two things are happening at once. There has always been – and always will be – natural variation in the climate. The ebb from hot to cold is part of Planet Earth. But on top of that, we are adding a large human blast of warming – and it is disrupting the natural rhythm. So when, in opinion polls, people say warming is “natural”, they are right, but it’s only one part of the story.

What worries Hari is that the ‘public mind’ has coped with the nuances of the debate. The idea that the extent of climate change and its effects might have been exaggerated is dangerous.

Once you have grasped this, it’s easy to see through the claim that global warming stopped in 1998 and the world has been cooling ever since. In 1998, two things came together: the natural warming process of El Nino was at its peak, and our human emissions of warming gases were also rising – so we got the hottest year ever recorded. Then El Nino abated, but the carbon emissions kept up. That’s why the world has remained far warmer than before – eight of the 10 hottest years on record have happened in the past decade – without quite reaching the same peak. Again: if we carry on pumping out warming gases, we will carry on getting warmer.

Hari wants to claim that ‘two things are happening at once’ – which may well be true – but is not happy with the corollary that it may be more of the natural than the anthropogenic. No scientist could state with the certainty that Hari has that the persistence of post-98 temperatures can be attributed to increases in CO2. ‘That is why…’ Hari claims, but it is premature. It may well turn out to be true, but the point is not that science can or has said anything about global temperatures, the point is that the ‘scientific’ account that Hari gives is intended to make statements about those who would interpret things differently. The scientific account is used to diminish the moral and intellectual character of ‘deniers’:

That’s why I won’t use the word “sceptic” to describe the people who deny the link between releasing warming gases and the planet getting warmer. I am a sceptic. I have looked at the evidence highly critically, desperate for flaws. The overwhelming majority of scientists are sceptics: the whole nature of scientific endeavour is to check and check and check again for a flaw in your theory or your evidence. Any properly sceptical analysis leads to the conclusion that man-made global warming is real. Denial is something different: it is when no evidence, no matter how overwhelming, could convince you. It is a faith-based position.

Which is rather rich coming from somebody who has just demonstrated that he doesn’t know what those he calls ‘deniers’ are denying, or what ‘science says’, let alone somebody who has to make up what ‘science says’ in order to make moral arguments about ‘deniers’. Also on Friday, Hari popped up on the BBC’s Newsnight Review for a discussion on climate change and culture:

Talking about the Arctic, you know, I was out there this summer to report on this. You know, the Arctic in my lifetime has lost 40% of its summer ice. By 2012 the North Pole will be a point in the open ocean

We have no idea where he plucked these figures from. Hari was born in 1979, which, as luck would have it, is when the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) satellite records begin. According to those records, Arctic summer ice has declined by about 30% since then. We wouldn’t want to be too hard on him for what might well have been an honest slip of the tongue. His prophecy (note the certainty of his statement) about an ice free Arctic summer, is far more malignant. The IPCC’s AR4 estimates it will take 50 to 100 years for that to happen. But there was a record melt after AR4 was written, so NSIDC has come up with a ball-park date of 2030 based on extrapolation from recent melting trends. Other estimates range over many decades and well into the next century. We assume Hari must be referring to Jay Zwally’s study, which is mentioned here. If so, he is missing a trick; if he wants a single scientist’s estimate to speak for science, he could have quoted David Barber of the University of Manitoba who predicted an ice free Arctic summer by last year.

At issue is not really ‘what science says’ about the world’s temperature, nor even speculation about the date at which we can expect the Arctic to be free of ice in summer. The majority of climate scientists could easily take issue with Hari’s silly claim, but it wouldn’t be a very interesting read. What is at issue is the way in which Hari carries on not only making up stats such as this, but wielding them as some kind of talisman, which gives him moral authority. His wild speculation about the future of Arctic ice speaks more about the way in which ‘the science’ exists as a means by which Hari can express his shrill internal dialog. He makes stuff up to give himself a voice, and defends it by claiming to be the vessel through which science speaks. He, like the vast majority of scientists, is the sceptic, he announces. Pity that he’s not such a sceptic that he ever checks his own argument. As we’ve said previously, this inability to self-reflect is the symptom of the angry, shrill, non-scientist, moralising, and disoriented journalist-activists such as Monbiot, Lynas, and now Hari. What they write is science fiction. They incautiously assemble scientific factoids, removed from their scientific context, to construct terrifying narratives about the future. This elevates them to the status of planet-saving super-journos, and from this platform their bizarre stories become the device through which they interpret the world. But they are merely peering into their own arseholes, not, as they claim, through the prism of scientific objectivity. What they see is chaos and catastrophe, but what they do not recognise in what they see is that it is entirely their own confusion staring back at them.

Throughout this blog, and in our last two posts in the context of Climategate, we have argued that environmental politics, not environmental science, underpins the war on climate change, and that at the centre of that politics sits the precautionary principle. We are grateful to Hari, then, for supporting our thesis. He ends his article by casting aside all that science and appealing to the precautionary principle in the form of Pascal’s wager:

So let’s – for the sake of argument – make an extraordinary and unjustified concession to the deniers. Let’s imagine there was only a 50 per cent chance that virtually all the world’s climate scientists are wrong. Would that be a risk worth taking? Are you prepared to take a 50-50 gamble on the habitability of the planet? Is the prospect of getting our energy from the wind and the waves and the sun so terrible that’s not worth it on even these wildly optimistic odds?

We’ll leave aside Hari’s claim that ‘virtually all the world’s climate scientists’ agree that climate change is set to render the planet uninhabitable, other than to say that he seems to be confusing ‘virtually all the world’s climate scientists’ with the singular James Lovelock.

So, first, Hari extrapolates from a handful of rather mundane consensus statements about atmospheric physics in order to conclude that there is only one way forward politically. And now he’s telling us that there’s still only one way forward politically even if those consensus statements are wrong. He presents the future as a stark choice between two competing visions – zero carbon or an uninhabitable planet. Environmentalism or death. He reinforces the point with a story:

Imagine you are about to get on a plane with your family. A huge group of qualified airline mechanics approach you on the tarmac and explain they’ve studied the engine for many years and they’re sure it will crash if you get on board. They show you their previous predictions of plane crashes, which have overwhelmingly been proven right. Then a group of vets, journalists, and plumbers tell they have looked at the diagrams and it’s perfectly obvious to them the plane is safe and that airplane mechanics – all of them, everywhere – are scamming you. Would you get on the plane? That is our choice at Copenhagen.

Hari’s little story is intended to be a cautionary tale about which kind of expertise is pertinent, but it fails, as so many dumbed-down analogies fail. In his striving for simplicity, he not only patronises his readers, but he loses any purchase on the arguments in the debate that is taking place. We picked up Andrew Dessler for the same mistake a couple of years ago. Dessler – a former scientific advisor to Clinton – had asked us to imagine the warming world as a child sick with cancer. Would you take the child to the best pediatric cancer specialists, or to non-specialists, he asked:

So Freeman Dyson makes lists. While I’m certain he’s a smart guy, I would not take a sick child to him, and I won’t take a sick planet to him either. In both cases, he simply does not have the relevant specialist knowledge. That also applies the large number of social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem. The bottom line is that the opinions of most of the skeptics on the list are simply not credible.

Unfortunately for Dessler, we tested his claim that the IPCC were the specialist doctors in his analogy by counting the specialisms of the latest IPCC report’s contributors. It turns out that many of them were precisely the ‘social scientists, computer programmers, engineers, etc., without any specialist knowledge on this problem’ that he had complained about. (You can read about WGI here, WGII here and WGIII here). Our detractors argued that we had been disingenuous, and that only IPCC WGI counts, the other two groups – which comprised a much larger proportion of ‘non-expert’ opinions – being less concerned with the ‘Physical Science Basis’, and focusing instead on ‘Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability’, and the ‘Mitigation of Climate Change’. This misses the point that the arguments about what kind of problem climate change is and what to do about it emerge almost exclusively from WGII and WGIII, not from WGI, yet the putative scientific authority of the IPCC emerges exclusively from WGI.

What Hari, like Dessler, forgets is the difference between the sensitivity of climate to CO2, and the sensitivity of society to climate. Or to put it more broadly, there is a difference between the natural world’s sensitivity to CO2, and human society’s sensitivity to changes in the natural world. Hari and his ilk like to stress the equivalence between the environment’s and society’s sensitivity. They seem to feel that once the scientific case has been made, the political and moral argument has been had and won. This environmental determinism, we have argued, reflects the hollowness of their own outlooks, hence the interminable screeching, hectoring and ranty tone of commentators like Hari, and our favourite, George ‘air travel is like child abuse‘ Monbiot.

We can all tell stories. You’re about to get on a plane with your family. A group of shrill and sanctimonious journalists from the Guardian and Independent newspapers tell you that, if you take the journey, poor people all over the world will die wretched, horrible deaths. They show you statistics showing how many people have died already, and how many more will die in the future. ‘You will be culpable for their deaths’, they say. ‘Do you want their blood on your hands?’ they ask. Then another group of non-experts arrive. They say that there are many ways to understand the poverty that kills people, and that not taking the journey won’t make such lives any better. The journalists return, they say that the other group are funded by huge corporate interests, and cannot be trusted because they are either mad or bad. They tell you that they have science on their side, that climate change is real and is happening, and that they have witnessed its ravages for themselves. Who are you going to trust,’ they demand, ‘us, or the other group?’ Shouldn’t you take the cautious route, just in case? After all, they might be right. You step down from the plane. But as you walk across the tarmac, you notice that the journalists are now getting on the plane. Some of them are going to Copenhagen. One is heading across the Atlantic to lecture Canadians about their climate responsibilities. Another is off to the Arctic, to see some climate change.

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…

Is JR Killing the Polar Bears?

‘Tis the season of resurrections. And right on cue, science PR is working overtime to bring the polar-ice soap opera back from the dead.

Following a disappointing summer of 2008, in which the ‘worst ever’ Arctic ice scenarios prophesied at the start of the year failed to materialise, there was the danger that viewers would start channel-hopping. Something had to be done.

To get things rolling, the scriptwriters at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) have introduced a couple of new characters for the 2009 season – winter maximum sea ice extent and ice thickness, both of which made an appearance in the first episode aired this week by the BBC:

The Arctic sea-ice reached its maximum extent this year on 28 February, slightly earlier than usual, and remained roughly constant through March.

Averaged over March, the sea-ice covered 15.16 million sq km (5.85 million sq miles).

By comparison, this was 590,000 sq km (228,000 sq miles) below the average for the years 1979 to 2000, and 730,000 sq km (282,000 sq miles) above the record low of 2006.

and

“Thickness is important, especially in the winter, because it is the best overall indicator of the health of the ice cover,” said NSIDC scientist Walt Meier.

“As the ice cover in the Arctic grows thinner, it grows more vulnerable to melting in the summer.”

In the 1980s, thick multi-year ice made up 30-40% of the cover, the scientists say.

The summer minimum area is changing much faster than the winter maxima, shrinking by about 0.7% per year. Last year UK researchers showed that the ice has also markedly thinned in recent years.

The BBC story followed a series of press releases that the NSIDC started pumping out to journalists just as soon as the melt season had begun. This is what has popped up in our inbox this month so far:

April 1, 2009
Sea ice cover over the Arctic Ocean typically reaches its maximum geographic extent and thickness just as spring begins in the Northern Hemisphere. However, the winter maximum extent has been lower during the last six winters than at any other time during thirty years of satellite records. Scientists have also observed that ice thickness and age are changing. They will present their analyses of Arctic ice cover for the 2008 to 2009 winter season at the briefing.

6 April 2009
MEDIA ADVISORY: Update on Arctic Sea Ice Conditions
In conjunction with a NASA/NSIDC media teleconference today, NSIDC has issued an update to Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis describing winter sea ice conditions in the Arctic Ocean. To read the full analysis from NSIDC scientists, see http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2009/040609.html
Supporting information for the media briefing is available on the NASA Web site at: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/seaice_status09.html. Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live on the NASA Web site at http://www.nasa.gov/newsaudio.

April 8, 2009
Media Advisory: Ice Bridge Supporting Wilkins Ice Shelf Collapses
An ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula to Charcot Island has disintegrated. The event continues a series of breakups that began in March 2008 on the ice shelf, and highlights the effect that climate change is having on the region… [etc]

The press, of course, lap up these plot twists like there’s no tomorrow, using them to pack out column inches with stories about how there’s no tomorrow. Take the opening paragraph of the BBC piece:

Arctic ice reached a larger maximum area this winter than in the last few years, scientists say, but the long-term trend still shows it declining.

This is such an utter non-story – amounting to no more than ‘NSIDC have another year’s worth of winter Arctic ice data’ – that the only reason we can see for the BBC giving it the time of day is to guard against the possibility that people start filling their pretty heads with silly notions that the extent of summer Arctic sea ice varies from year to year, and that while it seems to have been reducing a bit over the last few decades, it hardly follows that it spells the end of the world as we know it.

We mentioned recently that climatological natural variation comes in two varieties. To repeat ourselves, there is the type that is ignored by ‘deniers’ asking awkward questions about recent temperature plateaus. And there’s the type that is to be disregarded for the sake of alarmist stories about single, aberrant weather events.

Both scientists and journalists are guilty of these double standards. And in the BBC piece, we have another prime example. While bending over backwards to stress that, due to natural variation, a single data point that is not as ominous as it could have been in an ideal world does not mean there’s nothing to worry about, the BBC is entirely reliant on ignoring that very same natural variation in order write something – anything – about the latest installment from the NSIDC. It regurgitates NSIDC graphs, complete with lines of best fit that reveal the underlying downward trend towards inevitable oblivion, without wondering why scientific predictions from the NSIDC and elsewhere about the future of Arctic ice are spread across a whole continent of ball parks each the size of Wales. (Estimates for the date of an ice-free Arctic summer – an arbitrary milestone that has nonetheless come to be understood as the signal hailing the Horsemen (Norsemen?) of the Arctic Apocalypse – range from 2008 to 2013, through 2030 to 2100 to some time in the next century, or some time after that.)

This NSIDC graph used by the BBC shows winter maximum sea ice extent:

Ignore natural variation, and what remains is a shallow downward trend that looks vaguely scary only because of the scale of the y axis. We’re just surprised that no one has thought to extrapolate it to come up with a date for when there’ll be no Arctic sea ice even in winter. (2320, by our reckoning. That’s got be worth a press release.)

Meanwhile, the x-axis comprises 30 years of satellite data, a period of time that barely even qualifies as a timescale over which changes in climate can be assessed with confidence. According to the UK Met Office:

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) requires the calculation of averages for consecutive periods of 30 years, with the latest covering the 1961-1990 period. However, many WMO members, including the UK, update their averages at the completion of each decade. Thirty years was chosen as a period long enough to eliminate year-to-year variations.

The NSIDC, like the BBC, has its own love-hate relationship with natural variation. Last year, we quoted from a classic NSIDC presser in which, in a single short paragraph comprising three sentences, they managed to both sex up 2008 as a potential record-breaker and warn us off getting over-excited by a single year’s data:

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.

The NSIDC is happy to provide a running commentary on the monthly ebbs and floes (ho ho) of ice behaviour, while simultaneously maintaining that only the long-term trend is important. It even goes as far as to provide daily pictorial updates of the state of the ice. As the link on the NSIDC homepage puts it:

Read year-round scientific analysis and see daily image updates of Arctic sea ice

We can certainly appreciate that updating the data set regularly is a great service for working scientists, but it is far less obvious how the pictures help anything. It’s a cheap exercise in outreach. Effectively, it just serves to turn esoteric research data into the subject of a salacious rolling news channel. It’s not as if NSIDC are not conscious of the problems involved in disseminating complex science to non-specialist audiences. When, last year, we asked the NSIDC’s Walt Meier why the center chose to present data showing only one of the two measures of Arctic ice cover that they collect (respectively known as ‘extent’ and ‘area’), when the presentation of both would perhaps reflect more realistically the complexity involved in taking such measurements (let alone using them to make predictions,), he told us:

When you’re talking to the public and the press and so forth […] adding ‘area’ into the discussion can cause confusion. So we’ve kept to ‘extent’ to keep things consistent in how we’re reporting things and reporting one parameter instead of two […] We’ve chosen to not include the ‘area’ [data], even though there are interesting things to say about it, just because, for a lot of people, it does tend to muddy the water.

We wonder what could muddy the water of 30-year trends more than making a pictorial feature of daily installments of ice behaviour.

To an extent, the NSIDC’s hand has been forced. The Arctic has proved such fertile ground for alarmist opportunists (especially when terrestrial and orbiting thermometers are failing to provide headlines) that the NSIDC’s little blue lines on graphs are no longer the only game in town. Last year, self-proclaimed Arctic ambassador Lewis Pugh hit the headlines when he set off to canoe to the North Pole to raise awareness of the shrinking summer ice, although he went rather quiet – as did the media – after he failed miserably in his mission, having been blocked by summer ice. The NSIDC is also facing hot competition from the British Catlin Arctic Survey, which employs good old-fashioned Arctic explorers to do, we are told, what satellites cannot, which is to measure the thickness of Arctic sea ice. That’s the same thickness of Arctic sea ice that NSIDC tells us, without qualification, that satellites tell us is declining. No doubt the current state of knowledge regarding ice thickness lies somewhere between the two contrasting pictures painted by NSIDC and Catlin. But that these organisations are prepared to paint such simplistic pictures to raise awareness of their respective missions should itself set alarm bells ringing.

Who knows what twists and turns the NSIDC’s little blue line(s) will take this year? But it will be well worth tuning in to find out. It’s set to be good viewing. And don’t forget the Antarctic, which is now starting to feature in NSIDC press releases again having waited patiently in the wings for several seasons. The Wilkins ice shelf in particular is showing signs of restlesseness, a sub-plot that will no doubt feature more prominently should the Arctic not come up with the goods again.

Finally, as in all the best soap operas, the BBC leaves us with a cliff-hanger, courtesy of NSIDC’s Walt Meier:

NSIDC researchers believe that a warm summer could see a major melt.
“We’re not set up well for summertime,” said Dr Meier. “We’re in a very precarious situation.”

Precarious situation indeed. And not only for the reasons that Meier had in mind. It’s not just Arctic sea ice that’s on the line, but the reputation of a scientific discipline that has got distracted by the need to save us all from our sins. Tune in for the next episode. There might be a crucifixion.

The Great Danish Pastry Swindle

The climate conference in Copenhagen that ended this week produced a barrage of startling headlines, many of them from just one man.

On Tuesday, the Guardian’s junior climate alarmist, David Adam surprised us with an uncharacteristically non-doom-laden article:

Greenland ice tipping point ‘further off than thought’

The giant Greenland ice sheet may be more resistant to temperature rise than experts realised. The finding gives hope that the worst impacts of global warming, such as the devastating floods depicted in Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, could yet be avoided.

That evening, David’s mood soured:

Global warming may trigger carbon ‘time bomb’, scientist warns

Even modest amounts of global warming could trigger a carbon “time bomb” and release massive amounts of greenhouse gases from frozen Arctic soils, a new study has warned.

By Wednesday, David’s gloom reached unprecedented levels:

Caught on camera: The Greenland tunnels that could speed ice melt

The Greenland ice sheet is riddled with channels that could quicken ice loss and speed sea level rise, a new study has revealed.

That afternoon, David’s gloom was worse than previously thought:

Sea level could rise more than a metre by 2100, say experts

Global sea levels could rise much higher this century than previously projected, raising the threat level for millions of people who live in low-lying areas, new research suggests. Scientists at a climate change summit in Copenhagen say changes in the polar ice sheets could raise sea levels by a metre or more by 2100. The implications could be severe.

On Thursday, David’s gloom exceeded even the worst projections.

Severe global warming will render half of world’s inhabited areas unliveable, expert warns

Severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in, a US scientist warned today.

By that afternoon, things had passed a tipping point:

Europe ‘will be hit by severe drought’ without urgent action on emissions

Europe will be struck by a series of severe droughts that will make life “hell” for hundreds of millions of people unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions, a new study shows. … Spain, Portugal, southern Italy, Greece and numerous other countries would be turned to semi-desert as climate change turned off their rainfall… Asked what life would be like there, Warren said: “Hell, I should think. It is incomprehensible to imagine adapting to that level of drought.”

Adam operates on the principal of one article per scientific paper. We’ve mentioned this ‘tyranny of the news peg’ before. It reduces the scientific process to a rolling news service devoid of context and analysis, allowing Adam to report, on consecutive days, that Greenland ice melt is, respectively, less and more imminent than previously thought. It is as if scientific truth equals the sum of all the papers produced on a scientific subject divided by their number, and that for truth and democracy to triumph, he just has to precis a sample of them, and distribute them between the categories of ‘worse…’ or ‘better than previously thought’, so that our minds can be made up by the law of averages. But if he does see his role as a passive conduit for information, he misunderstands both the workings and the function of both science and journalism.

A further caution that Adam throws to the wind is that much of the new research he reports on will not yet have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Conferences are like that. They are a platform for scientists to present more tentative results, hypotheses and interpretations. We could find no sign in the literature of any of the studies Adam mentions. And many of them will not make it through the review process, or will only do so having been revised beyond recognition in terms of their scientific and/or political content.

Of the hundreds of papers that were presented at the conference – many of them in poster sessions [PDF] – Adam has selected just a tiny handful: the most salacious, sensational, and terrifying (or that can be billed as such) at the expense of investigating the nuances to the arguments about what is or isn’t true, and what to do about it, and presented this highly polarised perspective as an account of what ‘science says’.

To pluck just one of Adam’s stories from the pile, on the Thursday he was claiming that ‘severe global warming could make half the world’s inhabited areas literally too hot to live in’ and that ‘people will not be able to adapt to a much warmer climate as well as previously thought’. The story was based on a paper presented by Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, who adds human physiology into the climate models to suggest that ‘physiological limits of the human body will begin to render places impossible to support human life if the average global temperature rises by 7C on pre-industrial levels’. While predictions about the physiological constraints on our ability to tolerate high temperatures might be very useful, in itself, it says nothing about our ability to inhabit these places – and even less about our ability to ‘adapt to a much warmer climate’. After all, here in Northern Europe we wouldn’t survive the winter if we didn’t have homes to go to. We don’t know whether Sherwood made these claims, or if they are Adam’s own original contribution to ‘the science’, but either way it demonstrates a complete failure to scrutinise and question what are preliminary research findings.

By Friday, David had decided to speak for scientists on the Guardian’s podcast.

Climate change warning: ‘We’re sick of having our messages lost in political noise’

The message might sound familiar is that we have to act, and that we have to act now. But I think the scientists, they have been saying it for a while, and we’ve been saying it in the media for a while… but I think the scientists have lost a little bit of patience almost. I mean one said to me here that we’re sick of having our carefully constructed messages lost in the political noise. You know this is the scientific community standing up and saying enough is enough, we’ve lost patience, get your act together.

We have to take David’s word for it that he wasn’t one of those people losing the ‘carefully constructed messages’ in the political noise. We’ve said it before, the likes of David Adam, who aren’t scientists and clearly have a lot of sympathy with environmentalism, like environmentalists, don’t recognise their own noise as political. It is curious that none of the 2,500 attendees – natural scientists, social scientists, activists, dignitaries, corporates and journalists – had lost sufficient patience to go on the record to evince their frustration and impatience, and the only people he can get to confirm his message are Nicholas Stern and Rajendra Pachauri – neither of them climate scientists.

One climate scientist who does make a distinction between science and political noise is Professor Mike Hulme. Writing on Roger Pielke Jr’s Prometheus blog, Hulme wonders about the kind of ‘action’ that Adam was calling for on behalf of scientists:

What exactly is the ‘action’ the conference statement is calling for? Are these messages expressing the findings of science or are they expressing political opinions? I have no problem with scientists offering clear political messages as long as they are clearly recognized as such.

David Adam might want to reflect on his own words more carefully. Perhaps the frustrated scientists he was taking evidence from were talking more about him, than to him. Hulme continues:

But then we need to be clear about what authority these political messages carry. They carry the authority of the people who drafted them – and no more. Not the authority of the 2,500 expert researchers gathered at the conference. And certainly not the authority of collective global science. Caught between summarizing scientific knowledge and offering political interpretations of such knowledge, the six key messages seem rather ambivalent in what they are saying. It is as if they are not sure how to combine the quite precise statements of science with a set of more contested political interpretations.

These six statements were issued after the conference by its organisers. Clearly they moved David Adam, but not Mike Hulme, who points out that the authors are not qualified to speak for the conference as a whole, and that no synthesis was produced, and nor was the conference capable of producing a synthesis.

It therefore seems problematic to me when such lively, well-informed and yet largely unresolved debates among a substantial cohort of the world’s climate change researchers gets reduced to six key messages, messages that on the one hand carry the aura of urgency, precision and scientific authority – ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ – and yet at the same time remain so imprecise as to resolve nothing in political terms.

It’s worth reading Mike Hulme’s post in full, rather than reading snippets that we’ve borrowed in order to illustrate David Adam’s ridiculous alarmism.

Hulme qualifies as neither a ‘sceptic’ nor a ‘denier’, and sensibly advises that science and politics are not the same thing. This nuanced argument is lost on David Adam. The problem is that throughout his prose is the theme that the images he presents and studies he cites are instructive… ‘we have to act, and we have to act now’. This urgency is also the theme of so many climate activists, politicians and commentators.

Adam’s alarm is premature, and it stems from an expectation of science that it simply cannot live up to. As Hulme puts it:

A gathering of scientists and researchers has resolved nothing of the politics of climate change. But then why should it? All that can be told – and certainly should be told – is that climate change brings new and changed risks, that these risks can have a range of significant implications under different conditions, that there is an array of political considerations to be taken into account when judging what needs to be done, and there are a portfolio of powerful, but somewhat untested, policy measures that could be tried.

The rest is all politics. And we should let politics decide without being ambushed by a chimera of political prescriptiveness dressed up as (false) scientific unanimity.

It is striking that while – judging by his podcast – Adam seems to have picked up on the frustrations expressed by certain scientists about the lack of nuance, he hasn’t the faintest clue what it means. He hears murmurings about the messy overlap between science and politics, and yet seems so immersed in his model of the world as one that will be the death of us all that he doesn’t know what to do with that information. He ends up interpreting the frustration about lack of nuances as a signal that everything should be blacker and whiter – as if the nuance that has been lost from the debate is that we are all going to die. Adam wants science to settle the political debate, and he wants it now

And here is where we think Hulme’s otherwise excellent observations stop short. He doesn’t attempt to explain why politicians, activists and journalists like Adam have such expectations of science.

As we have argued previously, the dynamic driving the climate debate is less about what has emerged from climate science, and more about what appear to be political agendas. As Hulme observes, in many instances, politics is prior to science in the debate. But it might be truer to say that it is a lack of politics that is prior to the science. Science – or rather images of catastrophe given scientific credibility – fills the void. It re-orientates the disoriented, gives moral purpose in a world beset far less by climate problems than moral relativism, and gives political significance to causes that have long lacked rebels.

No field of science is immune to being used to fill politics-shaped holes. Science is seen less as a valuable tool with which to improve humanity’s lot and open our minds, and becoming a blunt instrument with which to beat the opposition. Campaigners on all sides of abortion debates increasingly fall back on science to make their moral case. The fact of evolution by natural selection has become almost synonymous with atheism. Depending on who you talk to, genetic technologies will feed the world or turn it to grey sludge. But it is environmental science – and its resonance with our sense of futility – that has gained by far the most political purchase.

David Adam’s work typifies this symptom. Being able only to see the world through the prism of climate change represents a failure to sustain a coherent analysis and a lack of confidence in even his own subjectivity – hence appeals to scientific authority. For Adam, climate change distinguishes right from wrong, left from right, good from bad. Just as each major UK political party has absorbed environmentalism into its manifesto, so too have journalists used it to inform the entirety of their own perspective on the world. This limited form of discourse is not about engagement with or criticism of the decision-making processes and the direction of society, it is about causal inevitabilities and moral imperatives issued by ‘the science’. ‘Science says…’.

The result is politics, ethics, democracy stripped entirely of their human meaning. Climate change rescues mediocrity and intellectual poverty from obscurity, and puts them centre stage, dressed as a super-heroes. As Adam shows, writing ‘worse than previously thought’ often enough turns you into a full time employee of the Guardian, and turns climatology into ethical and political science. If climate change didn’t generate moral imperatives, it would leave room for debate. And debate is for the ‘deniers’, who want to profit from the end of the world, or something.

In his most recent article, Adam entirely uncritically quotes the economist (and not climate scientist) Nick Stern:

Speaking after giving a keynote speech, Stern said he feared that politicians had not grasped the seriousness of the crisis. “Do the politicians understand just how difficult it could be? Just how devastating four, five, six degrees centigrade would be? I think not yet. Looking back, the Stern review underestimated the risks and underestimated the damage from inaction.”

Just a few decades ago, World Bank economists, even ex-world bank economists (such as Stern) were just about the epitome of evil for radicals, liberals, and leftists. The World Bank served Western corporate interests at the expense of developing nations. Today, Stern is celebrated by radicals, liberals and lefties, while he advances the climate change cause, and positions himself to take financial advantage of the carbon markets created by the regulations that he was instrumental in devising, which foist ‘sustainability’ on both the developed and developing world. Stern knows full well that governments have not failed to act. His own government, for example, has committed the UK to an 80% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, and the US is on course to do the same.

With all countries apparently committed to ‘action’ on climate change, the rhetorical escalation emerging at this conference is perhaps puzzling. What country is standing against an agreement at the next climate talks in Copenhagen?

We have previously speculated that the preparedness for an international deal on climate change presents campaigners with a problem. If everyone agrees, what role do you play, as an activist/scientist? By achieving an agreement, you undermine your role. Adam, who saw the world through the prism of climate change, no longer has a footing. Like Stern, he therefore has to reinvent his position. It’s ‘worse than previously thought’ and ‘governments don’t understand’. Because in a world defined by, and seen only through the climate change debate, once the principal debate is over, you also lose your orientation and perspective. If everyone is committed, you cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong, because the debate is no longer polarised. Eyes that are filtered green, cannot see anything in a world that is entirely green. They are blind.

It seems that the alarmism issued by the likes of Adam, Stern, and the conference organisers’ six statements represent a bizarre rear-guard action, not against prevailing forces of inaction, but their own blindness, and their own redundancy. They are fighting their own success.

There is no excuse for inaction. We already have many tools and approaches ? economic, technological, behavioural, management ? to deal effectively with the climate change challenge. But they must be vigorously and widely implemented to achieve the societal transformation required to decarbonise economies. A wide range of benefits will flow from a concerted effort to alter our energy economy now, including sustainable energy job growth, reductions in the health and economic costs of climate change, and the restoration of ecosystems and revitalisation of ecosystem services.

Previously, Professor Hulme has spoken about ‘climate porn’ – the tendency of activists, journalists and politicians to use the most distressing images, worst-case scenarios, and single studies stripped of their caveats and cautions. But there is another sense in which this expression illuminates the climate debate. Climate porn is to debate what porn is to human relationships. It simulates drama and engagement by crudely satisfying base lusts and fantasies with explicit images without the danger of rejection. But it is principally an inconsequential solo pastime in which understanding and negotiation with anothers is avoided. It achieves no resolution or synthesis, and objectifies humans, their ambitions and desires. Worst still, to paraphrase what the adage warns, climate porn will make you blind.

Cold is the new warm

When is a short term trend not a short term trend? When it’s an upward anomaly.

James Randerson in the Guardian tells us that,

This year is set to be the coolest since 2000, according to a preliminary estimate of global average temperature that is due to be released next week by the Met Office. The global average for 2008 should come in close to 14.3C, which is 0.14C below the average temperature for 2001-07.

But just when you thought it was safe to rush out to buy a guilt-free 4×4… <scary music>

The relatively chilly temperatures compared with recent years are not evidence that global warming is slowing however, say climate scientists at the Met Office. “Absolutely not,” said Dr Peter Stott, the manager of understanding and attributing climate change at the Met Office’s Hadley Centre. “If we are going to understand climate change we need to look at long-term trends.”

Here’s a curious thing… Whether or not global warming ever existed, if ‘relatively chilly temperatures are not ‘evidence that global warming is slowing’, then what is?

That’s not to say that cooler temperatures ‘prove’ that there’s no global warming, but that cooler temperatures must be evidence that ‘global warming is slowing’. The difference is between ‘evidence’ on the one hand, and ‘proof’ on the other. Evidence can support contradictory hypotheses.

If this was mere journalistic oversight, that’s one thing – even though Randerson, one of the Guardian’s science correspondents, with a PhD in evolutionary genetics, really really ought to know the difference between evidence and proof, and what they stand for. But if the argument belongs to Peter Stott, then it surely raises questions about his partiality. ‘Absolutely not‘? Cooling temperatures absolutely are evidence for the hypothesis that there is no global warming underway, necessarily.

Prof Myles Allen at Oxford University who runs the climateprediction.net website, said he feared climate sceptics would overinterpret the figure. “You can bet your life there will be a lot of fuss about what a cold year it is. Actually no, its not been that cold a year, but the human memory is not very long, we are used to warm years,” he said, “Even in the 80s [this year] would have felt like a warm year.”

Allen is right to say that people have short memories, but he is wrong to think that it’s only sceptics who have them, and make a fuss about exceptional years. For example, Anderson continues,

The Met Office predicted at the beginning of the year that 2008 would be cooler than recent years because of a La Niña event – characterised by unusually cold ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is the mirror image of the El Niño climate cycle. The Met Office had forecast an annual global average of 14.37C.

Anderson has a short memory. So does Allen. Scientists at the Met office are so keen to make a big deal out of unexpected temperatures that they ‘overinterpret the figures’ before they have even happened.

At the begining of 2007, a BBC article informed the world that

“The world is likely to experience the warmest year on record in 2007, the UK’s Met Office says.”

Such ‘overinterpretation’…

The global surface temperature is projected to be 0.54C (0.97F) above the long-term average of 14C (57F), beating the current record of 0.52C (0.94F), which was set in 1998.

The annual projection was compiled by the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre, in conjunction with the University of East Anglia.

Such ‘a fuss about what a hot year it is’… (even though it hadn’t happened yet).

We have actually run this forecast three times, updating it every month… and it is completely stable.”

But didn’t the Hadley Centre’s own Peter Stott just tell us that we ought to be looking at long-term trends? And yet, a forecast of a short term trend is considered newsworthy. Double standards are rife in climate science activism.

The Hadley Centre has been issuing the annual forecast for the past seven years and says it has just a 0.06C margin of error.

Eight months later, and the Met Office’s confident prediction was shown to be utter bunk.  Temperatures were falling. They revised their predictions, saying that they had created a new, more powerful computer model for predicting the future.

Powerful computer simulations used to create the world’s first global warming forecast suggests temperature rises will stall in the next two years, before rising sharply at the end of the decade.

But as we suggested earlier in the year, the incautious statements issued by Met Office scientists looked less like the work of scientific enquiry, and more like post-hoc speculation about which way the weather would turn.

In January 2007, the Met Office backed the wrong horse – El Niño. When La Niña emerged as the favourite, they changed their bets. This wasn’t sophisticated computer modelling. This was gambling by gamblers posing in lab coats. It was a safe bet that La Niña’s effects would last until 2009.

In order to wrong-foot sceptics, activist climate scientists (for that is what they must be if they are not agnostic about global warming) have had to reinterpret the evidence. Any downward tendency is waved away as short-term ‘natural variation’, caused by La Niña. This creates a casuality for the alarmists – it means that the significance of the record temperature in 1998 is diminished – clearly it was caused by El Niño. But on the other hand, ruling out the ’98 El Niño as ‘natural variation’ allows the claim that temperatures have increased since 1998 to be made.

Such chopping-and-changing appears to be the stock-in-trade of climate scientists and Guardian hacks. But this is because so much political capital is invested in the direction of lines on graphs representing weather statistics. And this is particularly clear in the pages of the Guardian, who have, over the last 12 or so months been especially keen to remind us that cooling trends are ‘not evidence that global warming is slowing’. There’s Randerson’s article, for example. Then there’s an article by Ian Sample, also a science correspondent, who last year reported that

The forecast of a brief slump in global warming has already been seized upon by climate change sceptics as evidence that the world is not heating. Climate scientists say the new high-precision forecast predicts temperatures will stall because of natural climate effects that have seen the Southern Ocean and tropical Pacific cool over the past couple of years.

Then, earlier this year, Fred Pearce, environmental writer and author of The Last Generation: How nature will take her revenge for climate change, said

A Germany study published earlier this month predicts the world will cool over the coming decade. British climate modellers at the Met Office don’t go so far. They think nature’s cooling will be more than counterbalanced by the warming effect of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But nobody is sure. In any case, we can expect the deniers to make the most of this opportunity to pour cold water on the whole climate change narrative. No year has yet been hotter than 1998, they will say. True: it was a huge El Niño year. Now we are on the way back down, they will say. Nonsense. The underlying trend remains upwards; and as every decade passes, natural cycles can do less and less to counter the growing human influence on temperature.

As we pointed out about the dramatisation of the movement of Arctic ice extent recently, the progression of curves representing climate statistics are the dynamic driving political discourse. The unfolding, present-tense narrative of lines on charts fuels the commentary about the conflict between the bad-minded ‘deniers’, and the honest scientists, seeking to destroy or save the world respectively.

The twists and turns of little blue lines excite the audience, and provide superficially important news fodder. It fuels debates, but with wild speculation and utterly meaningless and inconsequential factoids that will be forgotten by the time the next climate record is set. Repeat ad nauseam. These artificial dramas are elevated to ludicrous heights by claims that our entire futures depend on them. Consequently, life imitates this art. The drama extends into our real lives. It becomes politics, ethics, laws. The more we look to little blue lines, the less we realise that whatever little blue lines do only determines what our existences will consist of if we believe that the direction of the little blue line is instructive. It isn’t.

As the comments supplied by scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) about sea ice extent and the Met Office’s scientists careless posturing demonstrate, they are complicit in the politicisation of the climate debate. That is to say they are not impartial. They are not agnostic about climate change. And they are not disinterested observers of nature. Climate science is not a value-free investigation of the material universe.

Climate scientists and science correspondents imbue statistics with undue political significance. Therefore, they have to resort to use combative rhetoric when the trends offer conflicting evidence they cannot yet explain. Rather than contradicting themselves about the significance of short term trends, and moving the goal posts constituting long terms trends, climate scientists ought to be distancing themselves from the political significance of their work. Because to do otherwise is to legitimise the very ‘deniers’ they seek to diminish. If ‘climate science’ is where politics happens, then it is not only reasonable to ask if changes in the direction of change do represent a weakness in the prevailing view, it is essential.

Of course, a trend of 0.14 below average does not represent a static climate, but neither does an anomaly of 0.54C represent the dawn of a new, hostile geological epoch. Fools rush in to make statements about what such small numbers mean about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Hansen’s Glacial Recession

A CNN article at the end of last week said that

A team of international scientists led by Dr James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, say that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are already in the danger zone.

The ‘danger zone’? Is that ‘science’? Either way, the opinions of these alarmist scientists is hardly news…

Concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere currently stand at 385 parts per million (ppm) and are rising at a rate of two ppm per year. This is enough, say the scientists, to encourage dangerous changes to the Earth’s climate. As a result we risk expanding desertification, food shortages, increased storm intensities, loss of coral reefs and the disappearance of mountain glaciers that supply water to hundreds of millions of people.

Hansen has established his public profile by making incautious statements exaggerating the extent of global warming and its effects. Consequently, he is celebrated by the environmental movement. Yet, as we reported in the past, the curious positioning as a hero puts as much distance between him and the ‘scientific consensus’ represented by the IPCC Assessment Reports as there exists between the IPCC and any climate change ‘denier’. For example, where Hansen has warned of sea-level rises measured in feet, the IPCC’s most recent report talks of just inches.

Hansen-worshipers answer that the IPCC is naturally conservative about its estimations. But on that basis, we might as well dispense with the IPCC – whose reports have successively down-graded their estimates of sea-level rise over the years – and indeed, science itself. The environmentalists switch their investment from the ‘scientific consensus’ to the maverick as it suits them. Not as much a credit crunch as a credibility crunch. A speculative bubble is forming around Hansen.

Here at Climate Resistance, we have long argued that whatever the scientific realities of climate change, it does not justify the special politics that are demanded by environmentalists. This is partly because, however much warming the natural world is subject to, human society is far more dynamic, adaptable, and able to alter itself than the natural world. The human world is not an extension of the natural world. It is not weathered and changed by the elements.

Although at any instant, human society is dependent on natural process to function, the instance of those dependencies are not what human society is predicated on. Human society has experienced all manner of climate problems, localised shortages of resources, and over-abundances of weather. But where it rains a lot, we build drainage systems. Where it doesn’t, we build dams and reservoirs, and divert rivers. We fertilise soil, irrigate dry fields, and build sea defences. Of course, there are the occasional failures of the systems we build, but where there has been the most development, people are far better protected than their predecessors.

So why are scientists so worried about desertification, food shortages, increased storm intensities, and the disappearance of mountain glaciers’?

Until this year, a bigger problem for the developed world than food shortage and desertification was an over-abundance of food production. Over the last few decades, many international organisations and governments have aimed to reduce agricultural production while environmentalists, claiming that that ‘climate change is happening now’ worried about decreasing fertility. This year saw record prices in food and fuel, but not because of peak oil, as was claimed, and not because of climate change. The reason for these price spikes is all too human. As we pointed out recently, in spite of Oxfam’s claim that the poor in Bangladesh are being ‘driven further into poverty because of climate change’, agricultural production and yield had increased, as had GDP. If poverty in Bangladesh is increasing, clearly it has little to do with a changing climate. Similarly, there is little evidence that storm intensity and frequency are increasing.

Hansen thinks these sorts of changes would take several centuries, but he said we would have to deal with a “holy mess…as ice sheet disintegration unfolded out of our control”. As far as current global observations are concerned, Hansen cites both the decline of Arctic sea ice and the worldwide retreat of mountain glaciers as causes for major concern. “Once they are gone,” he said, “the fresh water supplies for hundreds of people dependent on rivers originating in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky mountains will be severely reduced in summer and fall.”

While ice extent may indeed be ‘out of our control’, (as if it was ever in our control) the issue for humans is not controlling the weather, but controlling our vulnerability to it. We do that, not by aiming to control the weather one way or the other, but, as described above: adapting to become resilient to the weather, and to controlling the local environment.

Hansen’s alarmism loses sight of our ability to adapt. Perhaps glaciers will melt. But for the ‘hundreds of people dependent on rivers originating in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky mountains’, all is not lost. If glaciers melt, it says little in the general sense about the net input to those glaciers. It will still rain and snow in the Himalayas, Andes and Rocky mountains. The water will still flow downhill, as it always has. This creates a new opportunity for dam-building, putting the elements more concretely under our control.

And there is the rub. Environmentalists don’t actually want things to be under our control. The objective of environmentalism – some kind of synchronicity with the natural world – is not based on necessary principles emerging from climate science, but on an ethic, a higher purpose of which we are mere subjects.

Dr Hansen says it’s impossible to say when we will reach the point of no return. “It’s like the economy, it’s a non-linear problem,” he said. “You knew, given the continued input of big deficit spending that things would go to pot, but nobody could predict the time of collapse with any confidence. We had better start reducing emissions soon and get back below 350 ppm within several decades — otherwise I doubt that the ice sheets can stand such a long strong pressure.”

Similarly, being able to make statements about what the future consists deprives the environmental movement of its capital: fear. For if we were able to make definitive statements about what the future might bring, we could develop accordingly, again, extending our ability to control adverse effects.

Hansen’s fear and uncertainty about the future will drive society into a catastrophe of its own making, not one inflicted by an angry Gaia. As we have said before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more we believe that society is determined not by ourselves, but by climatic effects, the more we will organise ourselves around the idea, limiting our ability to respond to climate – changing or not.

Fat Polar Bears Are Killing The Polar Bears

Last July, we reported that Fat People Are Killing the Polar Bears.

In November we reported that Fat Swedish Men Are Killing the Polar Bears.

In April we reported that Fat Polar Bears are Killing the Penguins.

In May we reported that Fat People are Killing the Butterflies and the polar bears again.

According to CNN:

Polar bears resort to cannibalism as Arctic ice shrinks

The article isn’t about polar bears at all, but about 2008’s Arctic sea ice extent – which failed to be worse than last year’s. But who gives a toss about ice cubes when there are charismatic mega fauna to write news bulletins about?

“The Arctic sea ice melt is a disaster for the polar bears,” according to Kassie Siegel, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are dependent on the Arctic sea ice for all of their essential behaviors, and as the ice melts and global warming transforms the Arctic, polar bears are starving, drowning, even resorting to cannibalism because they don’t have access to their usual food sources.”

Scientists have noticed increasing reports of starving Arctic polar bears attacking and feeding on one another in recent years. In one documented 2004 incident in northern Alaska, a male bear broke into a female’s den and killed her.

This is Disney for grown-ups. Evil fat people in SUVs force cuddly, friendly, vegetarian, and not at all vicious, nasty creature to perform a sadistic act of murder, just for dinner.

It’s telling that a story about Arctic ice extent has to feature fluffy bears. It’s a sure sign that the storyteller doesn’t credit the audience with the brains to be able to work out that it’s a bad thing for themselves. If you don’t care about finer points of cryospheric crisis, won’t you please, please, please think of the cutesy animals?

More animal-related madness….

What is the future for Arctic sea ice? Some scientists believe that in just five years, the Arctic may be ice-free during the summer.

“The Arctic is kind of the early warning system of the climate,” Meier said. “It is the canary in the coal mine, and the canary is definitely in trouble.”

Meier isn’t one of the scientists who believe that Arctic summer ice will be gone in just five years, as we revealed earlier this month. However, he doesn’t seem to be doing much to correct such transparently ridiculous reporting. And as we said last week, when everything… penguins, migratory birds, the Antarctic, the Arctic, Tuvalu, sea turtles, Kenyan pastoralists, islands, polar bears, Australian ski resorts, US ski resorts, Australian vineyards, Napa Valley vineyards, Canada’s Inuit, Alaska, mountain ecosystems, tropical ice-caps, Greenland, pika, naturists, the Bering Sea, intertidal zones, coral reefs, to name but a few… are all cited as ‘canaries’, then the whole wide world becomes a cage.

The Silly-Season’s Soap-Opera Ice-Storm in a Tea-Pot

Explorer Lewis Pugh, self-proclaimed ‘Voice of the Arctic’ took a break from cold-water swimming to try to become the first person to kayak to the North Pole to raise awareness of himself the shrinking Arctic ice mass:

There is one side of me that really hopes I can get there, that I can kayak all the way from Europe to the North Pole. Because if I’m able to do that, I hope I’m able to show world leaders just how much the Arctic has melted, and just how much it’s going to affect each and every one of us. But then there’s the other side of me which says I really hope I don’t get there – I hope I fail, I hope I don’t succeed. Because if I am successful, then it’s a very worrying situation, because it shouldn’t be possible to kayak right across what used to be a frozen ocean.

It would certainly be an impressive feat of paddling. But Pugh should not kid himself that he is raising awareness; he is simply riding a mighty bow wave of awareness that has already been raised by the mainstream media, environmental activists and scientists.

The progress of the Arctic ice melt has been this year’s big climate story. Following an unusual winter, with record snows in China, Baghdad, and across the world, climate alarmists were unable to supply the media feeding-trough with upwardly-record-breaking statistics. After dismal 2007 and 2008 summers, and unusually heavy and late wintry storms, the public wouldn’t buy the idea that the UK was being ravaged by global warming. And as we all know, the Antarctic isn’t warming. Consequently, all eyes pointed north, which has caused much rumination over the significance of the level of ice at the end of the 2008 Northern Hemisphere’s summer. The Arctic has become less the subject of scientific investigation, and more the arena for a battle.

Just as environmental policies are based on the precautionary principle, global warming alarmists exploit the unknowable territory of the future. It is not knowledge which drives environmentalism, but the unquantified possibility of catastrophe. Quantified risk spoils the story, because quantified risks allow the possibility of solutions. So alarmism seeks refuge in the furthest reaches of the world’s most inhospitable locations, where it cannot be challenged. It is no accident that the harsh landscapes of the developing world and the polar regions are where the bulk of arguments about global warming rest, it is hard to get there, and it is almost as hard to get people from these places to tell you what it’s really like, and what they really want. Thus, environmentalists speak for distant people, and far off lands… and polar bears. In much the same way, quantum physics is frequently used to ‘explain’ parapsychology and quackery; telepathy and precognition, ghosts, and homeopathic medicine. The harder it is to penetrate the science, the better a home it makes for ideas that owe more to wishful than rational thinking.

In order to achieve leverage in the political arena, environmentalists have had to construct story-lines to keep the idea of climate change alive in people’s consciences. These double-up as morality plays, in which ‘climate criminals’ are responsible for the plight of species such as the polar bear, and poor people throughout the world. Unfortunately for environmentalists, science cannot produce data and research fast enough for them, and to a sufficient level of certainty. Therefore, the stories come and go. If there’s a hot summer, we are told to expect them to get hotter, and more frequent. If there are floods, we are told that they too will get more frequent and intense. And so on. The abstract results of climate research do not connect with the public as well as images of catastrophes and starving animals, nor with people’s direct experience of the weather.

For example, take the words of George Monbiot in 1999:

Climate change is perhaps the gravest calamity our species has ever encountered. Its impact dwarfs that of any war, any plague, any famine we have confronted so far. It makes genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering. A car is now more dangerous than a gun; flying across the Atlantic is as unacceptable, in terms of its impact on human well-being, as child abuse. The rich are at play in the world’s killing fields.

The problem George has is in convincing people that any of this is true is that it defies all their senses. There is no visible climate chaos, such as he describes. Sure, there are occasional floods, heavy rain, and heatwaves, and so on. But there always has been. For those affected, life eventually returns to normal, and for the vast majority of people who remain untouched by these events, life carries on. Where people are less fortunate, such as in the developing world, George attributes their misfortune to climate change, whereas a much more compelling argument is that their predicament is explained by their poverty. He wants to say “IT’S HAPPENING NOW”. But alas, it is not.

Back to the ice.

We all know what ice is. It is fairly evident when it is there. It is not some unusual social or scientific construct. So if you divide the amount of ice there is today, by the amount of ice there was yesterday less the amount of ice there is today, then you should know for certain how many days we have left until the end of life on Earth. Or, at least, that is the depth of thinking behind the current round of alarm emerging from the polar melt debacle.

A lot of the heat has been generated by a graphic issued by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC), showing sea ice extent over the summer months. The question is whether the blue line representing 2008 will match the dotted green line representing the record-breaking 2007.

Well, that’s supposed to be the question. The reality is that the progress of the curves represents a real-time unfolding narrative, rather like a soap opera, which gives gravity to the background and humdrum story-lines of who-is-in-bed-with-who, villainous schemes, and blood-feuds. Will the deniers finally be exposed as ruthless and back-stabbing murderers, or will they once again foil the valiant efforts of the greens? Tune in, for the next exciting episode. Except that, just like a soap opera, it never ends. The turn of the curve provides the tension of the moment, but it never fuly resolves. A new story line emerges as the old one fizzles out, with the plot left slightly hanging, so that its protagonists can return at a later date (ie, when the writing team have run out of ideas).

Speaking of running out of ideas, Oliver Tickell, son of miserablist Malthusian Sir Crispin (just like Dynasty, it’s often the children of rich and powerful men who get to continue the story), wrote on commentisfree, citing the decline in summer ice, that:

We need to get prepared for four degrees of global warming, Bob Watson told the Guardian last week. At first sight this looks like wise counsel from the climate science adviser to Defra. But the idea that we could adapt to a 4C rise is absurd and dangerous. Global warming on this scale would be a catastrophe that would mean, in the immortal words that Chief Seattle probably never spoke, “the end of living and the beginning of survival” for humankind. Or perhaps thebeginning of our extinction.

See how the narratives stack up? At the top, global warming provides the situation. Beneath, sub-plots such as the ice extent story provide battle grounds for the constant war. At the bottom layer, the groupings and affiliations of goodies and baddies give rise to the politics. And in the sludge, the turbulent challenges that the heroes face. How can Tickell Jr. keep on side those who are losing faith in the good fight, and who appear to be making concessions to the enemy?

By linking to other story lines, of course. Such as Observer ‘science’ editor Robin McKie’s, who writes the episode called, “Meltdown in the Arctic is Speeding Up”:

Ice at the North Pole melted at an unprecedented rate last week, with leading scientists warning that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2013.

In that week’s installment, the blue line had nudged slightly closer to the green dotted one. Everybody held their breath. Who would be vindicated: the deniers, or the warmers?

Steven Goddard broke the silence on The Register, after noticing that the NSIDC graphs showing this year’s ice retreat didn’t match the graphics published by the University of Illinois.

More importantly, the data did not support the panic that the Pole might be free of ice this summer, as had been reported by various news outlets, and attributed to David Barber of the University of Manitoba. This was upped by Dr. Olav Orheim head of the Norwegian International Polar Year Secretariat, who claimed that the entire polar cap might disappear. Others were more circumspect, yet still predicted that this year’s melt would be worse than last year’s. Yet the NSIDC data failed to show this. It looked like the deniers would be vindicated.

A National Geographic article captured the confusion which the characters of the soap opera were caught up in. It was written in June, just before the little blue line stopped following the trajectory set by the progress of ice last year. As has been mentioned, David Barber raised the possibility of an ice-free 2008 Arctic summer. Next up in the article, Sheldon Drobot, at the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research lowered the stakes, saying that some ice might survive, but it might melt at the pole. But then the magazine announced that models suggest an ice-free Arctic is not likely until 2013. Spoiling the party, Ron Lindsay, of the University of Washington, Seattle’s Polar Science Center tells NG that, “Nobody knows for sure.” Finally, the article concludes that, whatever the differences between the predictions, “Almost all models have the Arctic completely ice free in the summer by 2100.” We might have to wait nearly a whole century for this plot line to terminate. Over the course of just 700 words, Aalok Mehta, the article’s author, had taken the viewers from a frenzy of expectation about a sensational conclusion, headlined “North Pole May be Ice Free for First Time This Summer”, down to the disappointing perpetual cliff-hanger.

The suspense was killing us. We had to find out more. Like fans possessed, we sought the contact details of the actors in the drama. What was the truth? What would the next turn of the plot be? Would ice disappear this summer? Or would it be 2013, as had been predicted by a model created by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Or would we have to wait a century to find out?

NSIDC senior scientist Mark Serreze was on hand to help put us straight. The Observer and National Geographic articles were simply ‘tabloid’ journalism.

MS: Our empirical data would suggest that 2013 is too aggressive […] What we’ve been on record as saying, and for quite some time now – and I’ll go on record saying it again – that, in our view, going to an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer – going to a seasonally ice-free Arctic ocean – could be as early as 2030

For fans of the drama, it is a disappointment. But it was an improvement on the 100 years given by the NG, and 50-100 years given by IPCC’s AR4. Serreze says that the IPCC’s predictions are conservative, and that new data has come to light since AR4. The melt had proceeded faster than expected. But what about the sub-plot – the 2008 melting versus the year before?

Serreze’s colleague, Walt Meier, had contacted The Register to tell them that Goddard was mistaken. There are two different ways of measuring arctic ice, and they shouldn’t be compared.

The absolute numbers differ between the UI and NSIDC plots because UI is calculating ice area, while NSIDC is calculating ice extent, two different but related indicators of the state of the ice cover. However, both yield a consistent change between Aug. 12, 2007 and Aug. 11, 2008 – about a 10% increase.

As Meier reveals, it turns out that counting ice is not quite as straightforward as one might think. The ice thins, but the plot thickens. The NSIDC produce two measures of ice – extent and area. Area is beset by the satellite hardware’s inability to make a distinction between melt water on top of ice, and ice-free open water, and an upgrade in 1987 meant that the area covered introduces an upward error into the data. Extent is calculated by analysing the same source data, but measuring each pixel, and counting the number of 25x25km ‘pixels’ where the coverage of ice is greater than 15%. In other words, it’s not actually counting ice. As the NISDC website informs us:

The extent values are useful in a temporal series, but caution should be used citing the numbers apart from the time series or comparing with values derived from other studies. Ice concentrations are sensitive to the algorithm used, and resulting numbers for extent depend not only on algorithms but on other processing steps as well. The extent values have uncertain significance when taken individually. For example, the 15% concentration cutoff for extent is somewhat arbitrary. Using a 20% or 30% cutoff will give different numbers, although similar trends, for extent (for examples, see Parkinson et al. 1999).

For a moment, it looked like the deniers had seized the day. But Meier stole the plot back for the warmers, to accuse Goddard for an article which “consists almost entirely of misleading, irrelevant, or erroneous information about Arctic sea ice that add nothing to the understanding of the significant long-term decline that is being observed”.

Oh? Goddard’s error was in thinking that an absolute index of ice existed – for which he apologised. But what about the claims that 2008 would be worse than 2007? And the claims that the North Pole and even the entire ice cap may be ice-free this year? Was it misleading to ask questions about those? Were they not themselves misleading? Is it misleading to point out that 2008 was not turning out to be ice-free? The ball was no longer in anyone’s court. The blue line carried on.

On the 26th August, the NSIDC announced on their website that “Arctic sea ice now second-lowest on record”. The actors in the drama were now fully engaged in writing it, and commentating on it. When we spoke to Serreze earlier in the month, he told us that the 2007 ice extent was not the result of global warming, but because…

… essentially we had a perfect atmospheric storm, in which we had a pattern of winds that brought warm air to the Arctic and helped melt the ice.

Like El Nino is largely responsible for the high global temperatures in 1998, we ask. Exactly, replies Serreze.

But Serreze is apparently reticent to offer information on the complexities of ice melt unless asked specifically. Otherwise, he is happy to feed the narrative with sensational plot twists of his own that owe little to NSIDC data. As he told Der Spiegel on 28 August:

“An Arctic Ocean that is ice-free in summer is inevitable,” he said. Any recovery made by the ice sheet, he said, wouldn’t last “more than a couple of years in the best case scenario.” By the summer of 2030, he says, the Arctic will be completely ice free for a few weeks at a time.

And yet when we spoke to him, Serreze told us just how much of a guesstimate the 2030 figure actually is:

CR: So what sort of confidence intervals do you have around the 2030 figure then?

MS: Well, just that it’s an educated guess based on where we’re going. If you look at what the climate models have been saying – this is from those that were in the latest round of the IPCC, OK? – they’re saying that, depending on the model you select as the truth, you could be going to an ice-free Arctic Ocean anywhere from say 2050 to anywhere out beyond 2100. That’s what the latest round was saying, OK? About a year ago now, we had a paper led by my colleague Julienne Stroeve, which was showing that the current rate of decline is faster than any of these climate models are telling us. In other words, we are sort of faster than forecast […] when we say 2030, as the number that we throw out there, it’s based on the recognition that the models are too slow. And it’s based on just looking at what the observed behaviour of the system has been. So that 2030, you know, you wish I could put error bars around it – plus or minus seven years, right?

And when he’s not selling tentative extrapolations as inevitabilities, Serreze is drawing on catstrophe-lingo du jour to over-egg his pudding. As he told the BBC for an article that starts ‘Arctic sea ice has shrunk to the second smallest extent since satellite records began, US scientists have revealed’ (which is a remarkably underwhelming observation given how recently satellites have been used to record anything at all):

We could very well be in that quick slide downwards in terms of passing a tipping point

Serreze neither explains what this tipping point might be, nor why his NSIDC data suggests we might be passing it. In this sense, ‘tipping point’ is used simply as a sciencey-sounding synonym for ‘something terrible might happen’. And reporters don’t even think to ask him what on Earth he is talking about.

We don’t want to be too hard on Serreze and his fellow scientists. They have a big job to do. And in a world that attaches such importance to the path of a little blue line, much is expected of them. But it is to disparage the way in which such complex research and tentative conclusions are transmuted into unassailable facts for the purpose of gaining influence in the political arena. Here’s a correlation for you: the extent of Arctic sea ice is negatively proportional to the desperation with which politicians and the media will cling to it, like starving polar bears, in the absence of any political straws to clutch at. But Serreze and his colleagues should not be exempt from criticism – they are playing their own important role in the soap opera. The articles in Der Spiegel and the BBC were in response to press releases issued by NSIDC a couple of days previously. First, they whetted our appetites with this:

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.

Then followed it up the next day with the money shot:

Update to yesterday’s advisory

Numbers are now available concerning current Arctic sea ice extent compared to the previous second-lowest year, 2005. Visit http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/ for more details.

You can hardly blame NSIDC for getting excited and wanting to tell the world about it. They’ve been slaving away for years gathering physical data from an obscure backwater of planet Earth, and suddenly they now find that data – and themselves – the focus of the media’s gaze. Their research is suddenly ‘relevant’. It doesn’t get much better than that when the accumulation of knowledge is increasingly hard to justify to the powers that be. Understandably, they want to make the most of it. And that means pumping out easily digestible, simplistic information. In fact, according to Walt Meier, the NSIDC scientist who complained to the Register, keeping it simple is a high priority for NSIDC. We were interested in why NSIDC seem to pay little attention to their area data, when it might be expected to provide additional information, in that it takes into account a measure of ice cover (from 0-100%) within each pixel. He told us that not only was the area data more problematic than extent, but that it’s important not to confuse people by making things complicated:

When you’re talking to the public and the press and so forth […] adding areainto the discussion can cause confusion. So we’ve kept to extent to keep things consistent in how we’re reporting things and reporting one parameter instead of two […] We’ve chosen to not include the area [data], even though there are interesting things to say about it, just because, for a lot of people, it does tend to muddy the water.

The irony is that the simplistic messages they put out are far more confusing than the state of knowledge in its full complex glory – as witnessed by the confusion generated by a year’s-worth of simplistic predictions and press releases.

Keeping things simple for the press and public has other implications. The NSIDC’s raison d’etre is to provide the data, which can then be used by scientists to describe and predict ice behaviour. Scientists obtain that data through the same website used by the press and public. And unlike the extent data, the area data is very hard to find. Try it. Could it be that the area data has not been scrutinised like the extent data simply because it is buried so deep within the website? If so, we have a strange situation in which the PR strategy of the NSIDC directly influences the nature of scientific investigation.

If the importance attached to NSIDC blue line is strange, then so is the fascination with the arbitrary ‘ice-free summer’ landmark. Like frogs spawning earlier or butterflies flying later, ice-free Arctic summers are, in themselves, neither evidence for global warming, nor a harbinger of doom – and yet that is exactly how it is used in the media. All are consequences of climate change. If global temperatures have been a bit higher than usual recently, it’s the most natural thing in the world that species adjust their life-cycles accordingly and that ice melts that bit faster. We should be far more worried if frogs did not make the most of an early spring, or if ice didn’t melt when it got hotter.

The twists and turns of little blue lines excite the audience, and provide superficially important news fodder. It fuels debates, but with wild speculation and utterly meaningless and inconsequential factoids that will be forgotten by the time the next climate record is set. Repeat ad nauseam. These artificial dramas are elevated to ludicrous heights by claims that our entire futures depend on them. Consequently, life imitates this art. The drama extends into our real lives. It becomes politics, ethics, laws. The more we look to little blue lines, the less we realise that whatever little blue lines do only determines what our existences will consist of if we believe that the direction of the little blue line is instructive. It isn’t. As we have argued before, environmentalism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, because environmental determinism – upon which environmentalism is founded – posits that human history is the product of environmental conditions. If ethics, politics, and society is formed according to the twists and turns of blue lines because we decide that it ought to be, then sure enough, history will be determined by little blue lines. We will make ourselves vulnerable to climate in order to prevent climate change catastrophe. The fact is that human history occurred in spite of the direction of blue lines.

By the time we finished this post, Lewis Pugh had already failed in his mission to paddle to the North Pole. He got as far as 81 degrees north before becoming trapped in the ice. (Even last year – with its record low ice cover – he managed to reach 82 degrees north.) Strange then, given Pugh’s declaration that “I hope I fail, I hope I don’t succeed. Because if I am successful, then it’s a very worrying situation”, that he seems to have decided not to shout about how pleased he is that the world isn’t coming to an end just yet. Far from it. As he writes on his blog:

Although the expedition is over, in many ways the real work is still to come – my job now is to act as an ambassador for the Arctic, to convey to policy makers the changes that are taking place here. This starts immediately – I am going to Washington DC soon to speak to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. I spoke with Congressman Edward Markey (D-MA) and his team in May, and it was a wonderful conversation – one I look forward to continuing. Smart people working hard to push these important environmental issues forward.