90 Minutes of TV; 16 Months of Handwaving…

…and counting…

Every day in the UK, £millions are spent on making sure that national and local government departments do not produce too much CO2. Business, schools and hospitals have to make sure they are complying with regulations that require them to reduce their environmental impact – rather than doing business, teaching, and making people well. Commuters across the country face increasing fuel taxes and rising costs of public and private transport. Children are taught to fear for the security of their future, and their parents are scolded for the selfish act of reproducing in the face of over-population. House-builders are forced to meet new ‘environmental standards’, and architects design homes not for their intended occupants’ comfort and quality of life, but to make sure that their living standards are not ‘unsustainable’. Across the media, countless programs, news items, articles, and lifestyle guides instruct us on how we can – and must – change the way we live our lives in a constant barrage of environmental propaganda. Politicians battle about what percentage cuts of CO2 emissions by when will save the planet, and whether the carrot or the stick is the best way to induce behavioural change. NGOs and supra-national organisations dictate policy to democratic governments. ‘Environmental psychologists’ theorise as to what it is about ‘human nature’ which prevents us from obeying environmental diktats. Climate change is the defining issue of our time – not because of incontrovertible scientific fact, but because it has become the organising principle of public and private life.

A mere 90 minutes of programming on Channel 4, nearly a year and half ago, challenged this orthodoxy’s influence. And those behind the orthodoxy have been spitting feathers ever since. It has raised more green bile than almost any other commentary, and has become the scapegoat for the environmental movement’s failure to connect with the public. Accordingly, the environmentalists’ fragile claim to legitimacy means that its first response is to spit invective at its detractors, the second is to run to the censor. What it has not tried is to engage in debate. To do so would be to appear to concede that, in fact, the debate is not over, the science is not ‘in’, and there are various approaches that can be taken in response to climate change, regardless of whether or not humans are causing it.

“It’s not fair!” scream the complaints to OFCOM, that just 90 minutes of program have been so influential, amidst, literally, months of airtime given over to proclaiming that we are doomed, that we face imminent destruction, that unless we change our lifestyles, millions, maybe billions of people will die from plague, pestilence, drought and famine. Never mind that these prophecies themselves lack a scientific basis; you can say whatever you like about the future, just so long as you don’t make the claim that it is not dominated by catastrophe. The most lurid imaginations can project into the future to paint the kind of picture that would have Hieronymus Bosch screaming for mercy, without ever risking OFCOM’s censure. You can make stuff up, providing it will contribute to the legitimacy of this new form of authoritarianism.

The OFCOM ruling on Martin Durkin’s polemic, The Great Global Warming Swindle, was published yesterday. Its findings are that there were problems; that comments attributed to David King – the UK’s chief scientific advisor at the time – were not made by him, even though they were; that the IPCC had not been given sufficient time to respond to comments made about it, even though it had been; and that Professor Carl Wunsch had been misled as to the nature of the program, even though he hadn’t (and isn’t that what investigative journalists are supposed to do?). On the matter of misleading the public, Ofcom found that it had not been offended, harmed, nor materially misled. A mixed review, then, saying, in summary, that Channel 4 were right to broadcast the polemic, but should have paid more attention to the rights of the injured parties. You’d have thought that would be the end of it. But now Ofcom itself is facing criticism from the eco-inquisition, and their decision is to be appealed by Bob Ward, former communications director of the UK’s Royal Society, on the basis that inaccuracies in the program were harmful to the public. Here he is on BBC Radio 4’s PM show:

Eddie Mair: What got you so cross?

Bob Ward: Well, what’s made me angry is the suggestion by Channel 4 that they have been found by the OFCOM ruling not to have misled the audience. And that is not what the ruling says. The ruling says that there were clearly inaccuracies in the programme and that these were admitted by Channel 4, many of them, but, in the opinion of OFCOM, these did not cause harm or offence to the public. Now, I’m afraid that there is no real justification in the ruling that OFCOM have tested whether it caused harm and offence, and actually, there’s quite a lot of evidence out there that it has caused harm, because people have changed their views, I think, about whether greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change.

EM: And you think that’s down to one programme?

BW: Well, it’s certainly contributed to it, and as Hamish Mykura [Channel 4 Commissioning Editor] was saying, he believes that it’s acted as a lightning rod. It certainly, I mean, people I’ve talked to professionally within the insurance industry with whom I work, some of them have been swayed, and that’s quite damaging. So, as a result, I think it’s certainly true that I and many of the other complainants are now going to appeal against the OFCOM decision on the grounds that there is clear evidence of harm.

EM: Do you think perhaps that some of the complaints that went to OFCOM were too detailed and too technical?

BW: Well, OFCOM did say that they are not there to rule on scientific accuracy, so it’s certainly been a challenge, which is why it’s taken them 16 months to rule. But it’s disappointing that they have reached the conclusions that they have – that although they recognise there are inaccuracies, it didn’t cause harm. They don’t appear to have investigated whether there is harm and how you would justify this. In fact, the OFCOM process is not very transparent itself; it’s not clear how they went about assessing the accuracy of these claims.

EM: Isn’t it true though – and this came over in the interview on The World At One – that while Channel Four obviously broadcast this programme, it intends to broadcast Al Gore’s documentary when it becomes available for television, so a range of views are being represented?

BW: That’s true. And one doesn’t object to a range of views. But there has to be a responsibility among broadcasters not to broadcast factually inaccurate information. That must be against the public interest. And I just don’t accept that broadcasting a programme like this, which was inaccurate about a subject as important as climate change, does not harm the public interest. And that unfortunately is what OFCOM said.

We have argued before that what emerges from the hand-wringing about the few moments of broadcasting that challenge environmentalism is not the exposure of the conspiratorial network of ‘well-funded denialists that environmentalists and the likes of David King and Bob Ward want us to believe exists. Indeed, such shrill hectoring better serves to show the environmental movement in its true colours. The fact that Environmentalists have been unable to laugh off or ignore what they regard as inaccurate tosh speaks volumes about the confidence in their own flimsy arguments. Without the argumentative ammunition to make their case politically, they need to make it into a morality tale. Environmentalists need Durkin and the Swindle like a pantomime needs a villain. They’ve written him into the script. If he didn’t exist, they’d have to invent him.

The Swindle has been made a scapegoat by pollsters Ipsos Mori, Bob Ward and his former boss Bob May, George Monbiot and many others desperate to explain the failure of Environmentalism to capture public hearts and minds. One has to wonder, then, what they hope to achieve by raising the profile of the film. The history of censorship shows that the more noise you make about something you regard as an abomination, the more interesting you make it, and the further you undermine your own position. The reaction to the Swindle has, since we began the blog, led us to look more closely at the activities of the Royal Society, and Bob Ward and co themselves. It turns out that his own position is not so spotless.

In June last year, we recorded Bob May, erstwhile president of the Royal Society, lying to an audience in Oxford about the Swindle‘s director, Martin Durkin. May told the audience that Durkin was responsible for a three part series denying the link between HIV and AIDS, and that this form of climate scepticism was equivalent to denying the link between passive smoking and lung disease. Where were Bob Ward’s complaints about mispresentation and calls for accuracy? It’s hard to believe that May would have made such an error of fact in public, when he publicly demands that we ‘respect the facts‘. All the more ironic is that in counseling us to ‘respect the facts’, he should made several further errors of fact, not least in his translation of ‘Nullius in Verba’, but also in his statement of fact that ’15–40 per cent of species potentially facing extinction after only 2°C of warming’, omitting the fact that this is aworst-case scenario predicted by just a single study. Again, where was Bob Ward and his calls for accuracy? He was busy penning inaccuracies of his own, perhaps. In his open letter to Martin Durkin’s Wag TV, one of Five major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence in the film concerned Durkin’s suggestion that the global temperature slump in the 1950s and ’60s, which was concurrent with rising emissions of greenhouse gases, was problematic for orthodox global warming arguments. Ward asserted that it is established that this is the result of white aerosols masking the greenhouse effect, and yet mainstream climate scientists we spoke to described the evidence for that as flimsy, and said that the debate continues. Another of the ‘five misrepresentations’ concerned Durkin’s argument that solar activity is a major driver of rising temperatures. The science has long been settled, said Ward. So why did the Royal Society find it necessary to publish new research based on a new dataset to demonstrate that the sun was not responsible for global warming after all? And just to make sure we got the message, they even launched the research with the strapline ‘the truth about global warming!

All this is not to suggest that the weight of evidence points to the sun rather than anthropogenic CO2 as the culprit. We are more concerned with the double standards employed by the Royal Society and its associates, a body that should surely be standing back from the squabbling and providing cool, calm information about the science in all its glorious complexity. A body that deals in a currency of facts needs to be especially careful about how it wields them. Like a body that bangs on about the dodgy financial interests of ‘deniers’ looks rather silly when its own dealings are on the grubby side of squeaky clean.

So, 16 months after the event, we have a report that says Durkin might have stretched the facts a tad, might have been a bit less than entirely honest with his contributors, might not have been quite as balanced as he could have been. And we are supposed to be surprised? It’s a TV programme. We could have got the same answer from a taxi driver as from a shiny report from an unelected quango. Meanwhile a browse through the pretty pie charts in OFCOM’s carbon audit suggests that the number of plastic coffee cups and notepaper used by OFCOM over those 16 months might have had a bigger negative impact on the planet than any seeds of doubt cast by Durkin’s film. If you think that’s a trivial point, then read George Monbiot’s recent comment on the silly affair, where he asks ‘why does Channel 4 seem to be waging a war against the greens?’.

This ‘War against the Greens’ consists of Durkin’s Swindle, his 2000 film about GM technology (an issue which Monbiot cannot claim the scientific establishment in the form of the Royal Society was with him on) and three-part series in 1997 called Against Nature, and a film by a different producer in 1990. And… errr… that’s it. That’s the extent of this ‘war’. Channel 4 broadcasts 24 hours a day, and has done for most of the past 18 years. Of nearly 160,000 hours of programming, this ‘war’ makes up around five hours; just 300 minutes. Monbiot continues:

It is arguable that no organisation in the United Kingdom has done more to damage the effort to protect the environment

If he’s right, then he’s got absolutely nothing to worry about.

Sceptics and critics of Environmentalism have been portrayed as cranks, weirdos and outsiders. You can make your own mind up about the truth of that. What the reaction to them shows, however, is a deep-seated anxiety which is totally disproportionate to reality. Monbiot and Ward’s paranoid hystrionics about the audacity of Channel 4 and Martin Durkin is nothing short of sheer lunacy. Their hypocrisy and unfounded outrage is breath-taking to an extent that it’s hard to actually conceive of an historical, or even pathological precedent. You would have to be seriously off your rocker to imagine that 5 hours of broadcasting over the course of two decades constituted a war, let alone even a mild threat. The real war – if there is a war, some might dare to suggest that it is simply debate about policy in a democratic society – is a war against journalistic freedom to present Greens such as George Monbiot and Bob Ward as the utter lunatics they really are. Fortunately it doesn’t take documentary films to show this; they do it all by themselves. You don’t need to portray Monbiot as a sinister purveyor of authoritarian misanthrophopy; you can just read his column.

Who'd've Discredited It?

‘Case against climate change discredited by study’ shrieked the Independent yesterday. That must be one hell of a study. Except that it isn’t:

A difference in the way British and American ships measured the temperature of the ocean during the 1940s may explain why the world appeared to undergo a period of sudden cooling immediately after the Second World War.

Scientists believe they can now explain an anomaly in the global temperature record for the twentieth century, which has been used by climate change sceptics to undermine the link between rising temperatures and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Not only does the study (published this week in Nature) not claim to discredit what the Independent‘s headline claims it discredits, but it doesn’t even discredit what the scientists behind the study claim it discredits. Moreover, what the scientists claim their work does discredit was, according to prominent Environmentalists, discredited years ago. And finally, what everybody seems to be trying to discredit isn’t even something that sceptics seem to be crediting in the first place.

Yes, sceptics are concerned about the post-war temperature slump, but not because of the sudden steep drop around 1945; it is the downward trend in temperatures between about 1945 and 1975 that they suggest needs explaining (which is actually longer than the upward trend between 1975 and 1998, just so you know), given that greenhouse gas emissions were rising throughout that period.

And as the graph used by the Independent to bolster its case (supplied by CRU, apparently) demonstrates, the Nature study does absolutely nothing to address that concern:

In fact, the most striking thing about the graph is that, once the sampling errors identified by the study have been taken into account, the period of warming in the latter half of the twentieth century was shorter than previously thought, and that the ’45-’75 temperature slump is more pronounced.

According to Phil Jones, a co-author of the paper, the study

lends support to the idea that a period of global cooling occurred later during the mid-twentieth century as a result of sulphate aerosols being released during the 1950s with the rise of industrial output. These sulphates tended to cut sunlight, counteracting global warming caused by rising carbon dioxide.

“This finding supports the sulphates argument, because it was bit hard to explain how they could cause the period of cooling from 1945, when industrial production was still relatively low,” Professor Jones said.

That might be so. But the aerosols issue is supposed to have been done and dusted long ago. One of the central criticisms aimed at the infamous Great Global Warming Swindle, for example, is precisely that it failed to entertain the idea that the post-1940 decline in global temperatures was the result of increases in sulphurous emissions that masked the forcing effect of rising atmospheric CO2. George Monbiot described the omission as ‘straightforward scientific dishonesty‘. After all, he said, that ‘temperatures declined after the Second World War as a result of sulphate pollution from heavy industry, causing global dimming…is well-known to all climate scientists.’ And as we have reported before, this was also one of the main points raised by the Royal Society’s Bob Ward and 36 scientific experts in their open letter to Swindle producer Martin Durkin.

And yet, as we’ve reported elsewhere, other experts in the field just don’t agree. UC San Diego atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, for example, told us that the empirical evidence for the sulphate masking of warming is ‘pretty flimsy’. We do not doubt that the Nature study is an important contribution to the field. (Although it’s interesting that Steve McIntyre seems to have produced a similar analysis more than a year ago.) What we do doubt is that the headlines, soundbites, and wild interpretations from newspapers and scientists alike bear much relevance to what is a dry, technical, scientific study, which, while increasing our ability to understand and predict climate trends, says little in itself about the truth or otherwise of global warming.

That said, the BBC’s Richard Black has demonstrated uncharacteristic reserve in his coverage of the paper, which includes the following quote from CRU’s Mike Hulme:

Corrections for this measurement switch have not yet been applied to produce a new graph of 20th Century temperatures – that work is ongoing at the UK Met Office – but as the land temperature record shows a flattening of the upwards trend from the 1940s to the 1970s, clearly something did change around the 1940s to ameliorate the warming.

“It perhaps suggests that the role of sulphate aerosols, that cooling effect, was less powerful than we thought,” said Mike Hulme from the University of East Anglia (UEA), who was not involved in the study.

George Monbiot and the Royal Society are just plain wrong – the science is plainly not ‘settled’. And so is Steve Connor, the author of the Independent article. As he wrote last year in response to the Swindle:

The programme failed to point out that scientists had now explained the period of “global cooling” between 1940 and 1970. It was caused by industrial emissions of sulphate pollutants, which tend to reflect sunlight. Subsequent clean-air laws have cleared up some of this pollution, revealing the true scale of global warming – a point that the film failed to mention.

‘Scientists’ have ‘explained’ nothing of the sort. As this case shows, the science is not settled. Indeed science is never settled. It is constantly re-evaluating what it understands about absolutely everything. And that’s especially crucial to bear in mind when the science in question has been bestowed with the kind of political significance that climate science has. To claim otherwise is to do a disservice to both science and politics. It reduces science to a flimsy fig leaf used simply to hide the embarrassing inadequacies of the latest political fad; and it reduces politics to an aimless exercise in number-crunching.

Fat People are Killing the Butterflies

Steve Connor, science editor at the Independent newspaper warns us that

Tropical insects rather than polar bears could be among the first species to become extinct as a result of global warming, a study has found. 

What does that even mean? Are the polar bears OK after all? Is the environmental movement looking for a new mascot for climate change? Is it out with the charismatic mega-fauna because of the environmental ethic that ‘small is beautiful’? But it’s nothing compared to the headline it appears under:

Insects ‘will be climate change’s first victims’ 

An image of a butterfly follows, with the caption…

Many tropical insect species, including butterflies, can only tolerate a narrow range of temperatures, and an average rise of 1C to 2C could be disastrous 

Contrast with the measured language of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article on which Connor reports, and which the journal has kindly made available for free:

Our analyses imply that, in the absence of ameliorating factors such as migration and adaptation, the greatest extinction risks from global warming may be in the tropics, where biological diversity is also greatest. 

This is not the first time the Independent has gone on about butterflies as the harbinger of doom. Back in March – a particularly cold March, as it happens – Environment Editor Michael McCarthy hit us with:

Last month, [climate change] produced its most remarkable image yet – a photograph, taken in Dorset, of a red admiral, an archetypal British summer butterfly, feeding on a snowdrop, an archetypal British winter flower. 

But as we pointed out, the red admiral is far tougher that McCarthy gives it credit for, occasionally making an appearance in Winter, and is certainly not unusual in Spring and Autumn. Yet again, the Independent is making claims about the vulnerability of species that aren’t consistent with the state of knowledge.

The BBC is no more level-headed about the research…

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

5.4C expected by whom? Well, expected by the anonymous author of the BBC article, apparently. Certainly, the IPCC makes no specific prediction for temperature rise this century. And 5.4ºC is not mentioned in the PNAS study, nor in the accompanying press release. The only match we can find is in IPCC AR4 where it is the top-end prediction for SRES scenario A2 (Table SPM.3), the range of which is 2.0-5.4ºC. But why pick 5.4ºC? If you’re just looking for a big number to scare people with, then why not plump for the upper value for the A1 scenario (1.4-6.4°C)? Is this like buying the second cheapest bottle of wine in a restaurant to prove you are not a skinflint? Or like Josef Fritzl wondering why everyone hates him when he could have been so much more horrible? [EDIT: The BBC has now “corrected” this error.]

Call us pedantic if you like; but imagine the outcry had the BBC reported that global temperatures are expected to rise by only 1.4ºC by the end of the century (the second lowest low point among the four AR4 SRES scenarios). But then, of course, it’s not just journalists (and activists) who are happy to over-egg the ecopocalyptic pudding. When, for example, Bob May (erstwhile President of the Royal Society and former chief scientific advisor to the UK government) confidently asserted in the popular media that a global temperature of 2ºC will put 15-40% of all species at risk of extinction, it was on the basis of a single, worst-case study. He was no less unobjective when he announced that climate swindler du jour Martin Durkin was also some sort of whacko HIV/AIDS denialist. And then there are the science academies, who, while being suspicious of the industry move towards open access publishing, are happy to make papers of the the-world-is-screwed-and-we’re-all-going-to-die variety available to all and sundry for free. Which is what the US’s National Academy of Sciences have done with this paper. And last year the Royal Society did it, too, when they published a paper which they claimed proved once and for all that the sun has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with global warming. This wasn’t just any old paper; it was, in the words of the Royal Society itself, “the truth about global warming“. And for some strange reason, we are still expected to take these academies’ opinions on what we should do about climate change as the last word on truth and beauty – “respect the facts” as Bob May puts it.

Newspaper editors and headline writers could – possibly – be forgiven for not understanding quite how science works. It’s harder to see how science correspondents could. And it’s laughable that the science academies seem not to. Funnier is that scientists and science academies are only too happy to criticise journalists, newspapers and TV producers when they report the science ‘wrongly’ (and you can bet your house that none of them will be criticising the Independent or the BBC on this occasion). But what do they expect? What sort of example do they think are they setting?

As we keep saying, this is no conspiracy. It’s just that – as they’ve been trying to tell us for years – scientists are human, too. Being human and everything, scientists are as jittery about the future and unsure of their role in society as the rest of us. But just because it turns out that they are as anxious as the rest of the world, it doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to take the claims of environmentalists at face value, or any less reason to maintain objectivity. Just as global warming is convenient for local governments, directionless leaders and crisis politics, it is also convenient for scientists and science academies lacking raison d’être.

Science might never have been quite the objective producer of facts that we like to think it is. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t strive to be an objective seeker of facts. Because striving to be objective about the facts of the material universe is precisely what science is supposed to do. When it applies itself instead to arming political narratives with legitimacy and authority, it talks itself out of a job.

The Black and White Aerosols Show

A paper published in Nature Geoscience last month received a lot of media attention. And rightly so. It showed that the Black Carbon (BC) component of soot is responsible for up to 60% as much warming as CO2. That is significant for many reasons, only some of which were covered in the newspapers.

The Guardian’s account is fairly typical:

Scientists warn of soot effect on climate

· Coal and wood ‘more damaging than thought’

· Black carbon harms environment and health

Most reports also mentioned that BC-induced warming is more amenable to mitigation than that caused by CO2. This is because BC persists in the atmosphere for periods of days rather than the decades that CO2 does, so reductions in BC output will take more immediate effect, and because BC and the so-called white aerosols such as sulphates, which have a cooling effect, have only partially overlapping sources, providing the potential to decouple white and black aerosol production. So far, so interesting. But what didn’t get mentioned is even more so.

First, there are the implications of the research for the climate models. It hardly needs pointing out that the identification of a factor that causes 60% as much warming as CO2 is going to require something of a re-adjustment of the models. The graph that usually gets wheeled out on such occasions is this one, which shows how the models juggle what are thought to be the five major forcing factors to come up with a line that kind of agrees with observed temperature variation over the last century:

Black carbon doesn’t even feature. In its latest round of reports, the IPCC assigns BC a warming effect of 0.2-0.4 Wm-2 (a consensus figure based on 20-30 modelling studies), in contrast to the Nature Geoscience paper’s estimate of 0.9 Wm-2 (the result of a review of the models combined with new empirical data from satellites, as well as aerial and terrestrial measurements of “brown clouds” over the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea).

More generally, the findings reveal how little is understood about the role of aerosols (regarded as having a net cooling effect) on climate dynamics. Which is especially interesting because aerosols are absolutely central to the standard way of explaining away a thorny problem for global warmers – the period of cooling (~1944-1974), which occurred in defiance of rising CO2 concentrations (see graph above). The argument goes that the temperature slump is the result of white aerosols – released from coal and oil burning – masking the warming effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, until various clean air acts in the US and Europe allowed the anthropogenic warming signal to re-emerge.

Indeed, this is one of those items of ‘settled science’ flagged up in an open letter to Martin Durkin’s Wag TV, makers of the infamous The Great Global Warming Swindle, organised by Bob Ward, former Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society and now Director of Global Science Networks at risk analysis firm RMS and signed by 37 scientists. The letter demanded that Wag TV correct “five major misrepresentations of the scientific evidence” before distributing the DVD version of the program. One of those major misrepresentations concerned the post-war temperature slump:

However, the DVD version of the programme does not make any mention of the impact of atmospheric aerosols on the record of global average temperature. The producer of the programme, Martin Durkin has attempted to justify this by suggesting that if aerosols caused the cooling between 1945 and 1975, then global average temperatures should be lower today, because he believes that atmospheric concentrations of aerosols should be even higher today than they were during that period. But the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report pointed out that “[g]lobal sulphur emissions (and thus sulphate aerosol forcing) appear to have decreased after 1980”.

However, according to the authors of the Nature Geoscience paper, it is nothing like so clear cut. First up, University of Iowa atmospheric chemist Greg Carmichael:

Climate Resistance: Are we now not so certain that the post-war cooling is due to aerosols? 

Greg Carmichael: This is an added complication. But it’s also an added level of understanding. And as we get better measurements of the present, and better models that can drive these simulations for the last 50 years, or so, we’ll see that we’ve improved our understanding and that the aerosol effect is as important as we’ve indicated.

CR: But we don’t actually know that yet?

GC: We still have a way to go before understand how the heating-cooling push-pull really plays out.

UC San Diego atmospheric physicist Veerabhadran Ramanathan is more candid:

Climate Resistance: What are the implications of this work for the idea that the post-war temperature decline is the result of sulphate aerosols masking the warming effect of CO2 emissions? 

Veerabhadran Ramanathan: After the 1970s, when the West was cleaning up pollution, there was a rise in temperatures. We stopped burning coal in cities etc, and coal puts out a lot of sulphates, and sulphates mask global warming. At the same time, in the tropics, China and India, they were growing fast and putting a lot more Black Carbon.

CR: So the sulphate component must have been reduced more than the Black Carbon component for the aerosol masking theory to hold? We now need empirical data to compare the effect of black and white aerosols during the post-war temperature slump?

VR: Exactly.

CR: Do we have that empirical data?

VR: No. The data we have is for 2002-2003. We don’t know what happened in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. The implication of this study is that we have to understand what is the relative change in the sulphur emissions versus the Black Carbon emissions – and we don’t know that.

CR: So what is the empirical evidence that, 50 years ago, white aerosols were masking GW due to CO2?

VR: It’s pretty flimsy. The main information we have […] is our understanding of the SO2 emissions by coal combustion, and oil. But we need to know not so much how much SO2 we put out, but how much was converted to sulphates, how much was removed [etc]

CR: So you don’t even know the life cycle of the SO2 and sulphates?

VR: No. All the information we have is from models… It could still be true [that white aerosols account for the post-war temperature slump]

CR: But it could not be true?

VR: Yes. The picture is complicated. But this paper is not saying it is wrong […]

CR: So we now have a better idea of what is happening aerosol-wise in the present, but what was going on in the 1950s/’60s is still elusive?

VR: Yes, There’s a lot of research needs to be done on that – what happened in the ’50s and ’60s, and then why the rapid ramp up [from the ’70s]. I’m not saying our current understanding is wrong, just that it is a more complicated picture. I would say it’s uncertain.

All of which tells a rather different story about the state of knowledge than Bob Ward’s letter would have us believe. It continues:

[The Great Global Warming Swindle] misrepresented the current state of scientific knowledge by failing to mention that the cooling effects of aerosol need to be taken into account when considering the period of slight cooling between 1945 and 1975. 

Just like Bob Ward failing to mention that the empirical evidence that aerosols account for the period of slight cooling between 1945 is “pretty flimsy”, in fact – which is perhaps why Durkin didn’t mention it. And just as Ward slights Durkin for bolstering his case by omitting ‘inconvenient’ facts, there is little difference between what he accuses Durkin of, and the way he and his fellow accusers carried on.

The Great Solar Warming Squabble

The reaction of scientists and environmentalists to The Great Global Warming Swindle has been far more interesting than the programme itself. The most recent tirade against it comes from Professor Mike Lockwood of the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Here he is talking to the The Register:

“That program was so bad it was almost fraudulent,” Lockwood says. “[The subjects raised] made for a decent scientific debate 15 years ago, but the questions have since been settled … The Great Global Warming Swindle raised old debates that are going to be latched on to and used to suggest that we don’t need to do anything about climate change. In that sense, it was a very destructive program” 

Lockwood is the co-author, with Claus Fröhlich of the World Radiation Center in Switzerland, of a highly publicised paper published last week in Proceedings of the Royal Society series A, which finds a lack of correlation between recent solar activity and global temperatures. From the abstract:

Over the past 20 years, all the trends in the sun that could have had an influence on Earth’s climate have been in the opposite direction to that required to explain the observed rise in global mean temperatures 

‘This should settle the debate’, Lockwood told the BBC. The debate in question is of course the one surrounding the influence of solar activity on recent global temperatures, as featured in The Great Global Warming Swindle. But why was this paper needed at all to settle a debate that, in Lockwood’s own words, has already been settled? It seems that the debate wasn’t quite so settled after all. Indeed, Lockwood told the BBC that his study was initiated partially in response to Swindle.

The Royal Society also seem to consider the paper to be of some special significance, because, although it’s published in a traditional, subscription-funded journal, they have taken the unusual step of making it available in full – and for free – online. And yet the Royal Society still use the opportunity to have a cheap pop at anybody who disagrees with them:

At present there is a small minority which is seeking to deliberately confuse the public on the causes of climate change. They are often misrepresenting the science, when the reality is that the evidence is getting stronger every day. 

Presumably, that is not aimed at Martin Durkin, producer of The Great Global Warming Swindle, and the man falsely accused by Bob May, former president of the Royal Society, of being an HIV-AIDS denialist. Because, judging by what Lockwood says, and by the reaction of the Royal Society, Durkin has prompted a landmark study that settles a matter that they thought had been settled fifteen years ago. They should be thanking him.

***EDIT (7 April 2008) Something we missed at the time, and then forgot to post about, is that the press release put out by the Royal Society (purveyor of academic journals, custodian of the facts, and Exxon slayer) billed the Lockwood & Fröhlic paper as “The truth about global warming”. The page has long since been deleted, but here’s a screen grab we took last year:

May, the 'Facts' Be With You

Bob ‘respect the facts‘ May has been failing to heed his own advice again. Here’s a recording of him at the ‘Oxford is My World‘ event on 5 June, accusing Martin ‘great global warming swindle’ Durkin of being ‘a chap who earlier is notable for Channel Four’s […] three-part programme showing that HIV didn’t cause AIDS’.

Where does May get his ‘facts’ from?

Martin Durkin has made no such series of films. May’s point is that ‘denialists’ like Durkin set out to deliberately misinform the world about the science of climate change. No doubt the misinformation May spreads about those he disagrees with is a genuine, innocent mistake – we look forward to hearing him correct it.

More Heat than Light on the Warming Swindle

Martin Durkin’s Great Global Warming Swindle is in the news again following an open letter to Wag TV signed by 37 scientists. The Letter, organised by Bob Ward – former Senior Manager for Policy Communication at the Royal Society, complains about the DVD release of the film.

We believe that the misrepresentation of facts and views, both of which occur in your programme, are so serious that repeat broadcasts of the programme, without amendment, are not in the public interest … In fact, so serious and fundamental are the misrepresentations that the distribution of the DVD of the programme without their removal amounts to nothing more than an exercise in misleading the public. 

This isn’t censorship, Ward argues in the Guardian. ‘Free speech does not extend to misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, which raises the question about what free speech actually is if it is not freedom, amongst other things, to…er…speak – even if it’s not the truth. But if Ward is really against ‘misleading the public by making factually inaccurate statements’, he might set his sights closer to home, on his former boss and co-signature Robert May, for example, who doesn’t appear to be against making factually inaccurate statements either. Ward, May, and others in and around the Royal society are conspicuously silent about mistakes/overstatements/distortions/lies (you decide) made by NGOs, politicians, and indeed their fellow scientists when it doesn’t contradict what seems to be emerging as their own clearly political agenda.

For example, the Guardian reports that,

Myles Allen, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford who signed the letter, said the programme “took a very cavalier attitude to science. There are important issues around climate change that the public should be discussing, but all this programme did was rehash debates that were had and finished in the scientific community 15 years ago.” 

Allen doesn’t tell us which debates he thinks have been ‘had and finished’. But, if the debate is indeed now over, then why would scientists and IPCC contributors still be challenging the scientific consensus and the politics which flows from it? Allen means, of course, that he likes to think that the debate is over but this is simply wishful thinking. The implication is that Allen et al get to decide when the debate is over, not anyone else. This is neither good science, nor good politics. Debate exists where there is a challenge to an idea, not when a select committee decides that it has had enough.

It might be that these scientists and the Royal Society simply don’t recognise their own political agenda. This seems likely given the apparent inability of these scientists-turned-pundits to see the irony of their own words. Take, for example, Allen’s comments in the Guardian:

“What Martin Durkin and Channel 4 don’t understand is the way science works. Science is about the arguments, not the people who make them.” 

Allen makes an argument about ‘Martin Durkin and Channel 4’ as though it was not an argument based on their credibility. Similarly, Robert May suggests that ‘an active and well-funded “denial lobby”‘ prevents the truth being heard, and that it ‘shares many features with the lobby that for so long denied that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer’. This does not tally with Allen’s view that science is about the arguments, not the arguers, and neither do the Royal Society’s statements about the debate. For example, in setting out its views on the climate change controversies on its website, the Royal Society tells us that

This is not intended to provide exhaustive answers to every contentious argument that has been put forward by those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming. 

It goes on to explain that

There are some individuals and organisations, some of which are funded by the US oil industry, that seek to undermine the science of climate change and the work of the IPCC. They appear motivated in their arguments by opposition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, which seek urgent action to tackle climate change through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions… Often all these individuals and organisations have in common is their opposition to the growing consensus of the scientific community that urgent action is required through a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But the opponents are well-organised and well-funded… 

The RS does not appear to be doing ‘science’ here at all. It would rather we take its word for it that any challenge to the consensus has no scientific basis, but is politically motivated. This is itself a political argument, not a scientific one. The RS would have us believe that no criticism can be legitimate; the crisis is too urgent. As Martin Rees, the current president of the Royal Society puts it:

Those who promote fringe scientific views but ignore the weight of evidence are playing a dangerous game. They run the risk of diverting attention from what we can do to ensure the world’s population has the best possible future. 

And what kind of ‘best possible future’ does Rees imagine? Well, according to his book, not a very good one. Indeed, Rees can only imagine a future which gives the human race a 50/50 chance of surviving beyond 2100. Political conspiracies… Bond-esque villains plotting the end of civilisation… looming apocalypses… Killer robots… Were Rees not president of the RS, we might expect him to go around in a tin-foil hat.

Perhaps the reason that Rees and his fellow scientists need to make these bleak statements about the future is because of an inability to imagine a role for science without the raison d’etre that crisis provides. This would suggest a limited view of the value of science to society – one reduced to saving the world from a range of nightmares rather than making it a better place. This fantasy gives legitimacy, authority and purpose. It is, therefore, in their interests to defend superficially plausible theories about the end of the world. Indeed this group of scientists (many of them – Rees and May, for example – not climate scientists) have constructed arguments which fall apart when the idea that ‘the debate is over’ is challenged (even if there remains the likelihood that CO2 emissions are influencing the climate) precisely because their argument is about the politics not the science. If the debate is not over, and consequently, there is no crisis then there is no purpose for any of the organisations whose role it is to provide consensus. It is because of this that they need to insist that the debate is over, rather than to encourage it. They ought to be shedding light on the matter, and making sense of the science, not defending a course of action out of the necessity of justifying themselves. This is politics.

May, Rees and the Royal Society in general make much of the vested interests of the so-called ‘sceptics’ and ‘deniers’, but these are accusations that can be thrown straight back at them. The matter has become so politicised that there are now reputations, jobs, livelihoods, grants, interests, and political positions at stake here. Indeed, the Royal Society is responsible for the distribution of £40 million of public and private funds to scientists. How likely it is that any of those funds get allocated to research that sets out to challenge the IPCC consensus? And given the ferocious statements made by leading RS scientists, how many scientists who might be in a position to develop theories that could challenge ‘the consensus’ might be put off approaching the RS for funding?

But why would Bob Ward, who no longer holds a position at the RS, and who is not a climate scientist, have anything to say about who is right or wrong on matters of climate science? Ward left his job at the RS to take a job as Director of Global Science Networks at risk analysis firm RMS, which serves ‘more than 400 insurers, reinsurers, trading companies, and other financial institutions‘ so that they ‘achieve financial stability while optimizing profitability and growth‘.

Might it be that just as political capital is generated by the urgency of climate change arguments, there are financial interests also? RMS sell their services to their clients who, if persuaded that the confidence intervals given by the IPCC are not quite what they seem, might not be prepared to fork out for insurance premiums. As the RMS website tells us:

Over the last decade catastrophe modeling technology has become a vital tool for quantifying, managing, and transferring risk in the insurance industry … Any company with financial assets exposed to catastrophes can benefit from catastrophe modeling. Insurers, reinsurers, brokers, financial markets, and corporations have all recognized the need to synthesize available scientific research with quantitative techniques to evaluate the probability of financial loss…. Today, RMS provides catastrophe modeling solutions to more companies than any other organization… RMS models are the standard for quantifying catastrophe risk in countries all over the world. RMS offers catastrophe models in over 40 countries, allowing underwriters to confidently price risk and analyze the probability of loss in regions with the highest exposure. 

Just as politicians turn fear of risk into political capital, so too can fear of risk be turned into hard cash – fear of risk is to RMS what oil is to Exxon. Yet if somebody holding a senior position at Exxon were to make similar public statements about taking liberties with scientific fact, they would face a storm of protest. Indeed, Bob Ward might be inclined to write them an open letter

That said, we have no intention of reducing scientific climate debates to squabbles about who funds whom or who has what competing interests. Neither do we wish to defend any mistakes or ‘deliberate distortions’ made by Durkin in his film. But Ward and his colleagues have blundered into the affair in the manner of people aggrieved that their authority has been challenged rather than as scientists with the best available information to hand. They would rather silence dissenters than address their arguments. And the only casualties from that are the reputations of science and scientists.