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.

"I'm Dreamin' of a White Easter"

It’s spring. And you can tell, not by the chirping of birds in the trees, or the frolicking of lambs in the fields, but by the whining and bleating of journalists in the Independent and Guardian newspapers about how spring is coming earlier every year, and how this means a catastrophe is just around the corner.

In ‘How the blurring of the seasons is a harbinger of climate calamity‘, Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor of the Independent, writes,

According to documented observations throughout 2007 and 2008, events in the natural world that used to be key spring indicators, from the blooming of flowers to the appearance of insects, are now increasingly happening in what used to be thought of as mid-winter, as Britain’s temperatures steadily rise. 

The problem for McCarthy is that much of the UK is set to be covered in a blanket of snow this Easter Sunday. Hardly a ‘key indicator’ of spring.

But what is a ‘key indicator’ anyway? And in what sense does Spring ‘exist’, such that it has scientific meaning? Is there an objective measure of spring, so we know that it has sprung in the way that we can know what time sun-rise and sun-set are?

To be fair, Paul Evans in the Guardian is far more circumspect than McCarthy.

Despite its stops and starts and the recent wild and extreme weather, all the signs point to this being one of the earliest springs Britain has had. But can we rely on the traditional harbingers to announcespring’s arrival, or should we be looking for new signs as the seasons become more complicated with the effects of climate change?  

After listing some anomalies of some species behaving in spring-like ways before they are ‘supposed’ to, Evans gives an interesting account of ‘phenology’.

Phenology is the study of such natural first events, and the Nature’s Calendar website, run by the Woodland Trust, is bulging with early sightings of frogspawn, tadpoles, nest-building birds, butterflies, catkins, celandines and snowdrops from 5,000 volunteers around the UK. “The natural world is giving us clear year-on-year indications that things are changing,” says Kate Lewthwaite, phenology manager at the Woodland Trust. “The timing of natural events is one of the most responsive aspects of the natural world to warming, so it is an important indicator of change.” 

McCarthy tells us something similar,

The changes and many others have been monitored in detail because in Britain there has been a renewal of the old discipline of phenology, or the study of the timings of natural events, which was favoured by the Victorians but largely abandoned by the 1950s. It has been revived by an environmental statistician, Dr Tim Sparks from the Monks Wood wildlife research centre nearHuntingdon, part of the Government’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH). Dr Sparks set up the UK Phenology Network, which has been taken over by the Woodland Trust, a charity which runs it in partnership with CEH as Nature’s Calendar, with 40,000 people from all over Britain contributing records.

Thing is, now that there are thousands of volunteers, listing this kind of thing, with more leisure time than ever before, and new forms of communication being opened up by the Internet, it is likely that there are more opportunities for spotting such anomalies. The earliestphenologists would have been rare, eccentric rich people, rather than dog-walking amateur wildlife spotters. And early signs of spring are likely to have been regarded previously as simple anomalies, whereas now, the hunt is on not only for ‘harbinger of climate calamity’, but also attribution to a single causal factor. In other words, when we’re on the lookout for climate change, anything will suffice as evidence.

The razor-sharp John Brignell of Numberwatch has, over the last few years posted some interesting thoughts on Spring madness. He is especially sceptical of phenology as a method of detecting climate change.

BBC: Spring 2006 couldn’t have been more different from 2005. Weather always varies from year to year but with climate change it is the long-term trend that is it important. What this year’s “cold” weather allows us to do is show very clearly how timing of events closely reflect temperature. Given that the average temperature for January – April was 1.5 C lower than last year, all events (average dates) were later than the same events in 2005.

Brignell: What would have been the opening paragraph if events had been earlier? It is inevitable that these embarrassing moments for the phenologists will keep recurring. Will even their media allies eventually lose patience?

The assumption made by phenologists is that spring is an ‘event’ that happens to, or in the world that we can establish by better and better measurement. But is there really a definitive measure of spring? An old English proverb tells us,

Cast not a clout till May be out. 

Spring has always been variable. And, let’s face it, so is the UK’s summer. Environmentalists look for order which has been upset, without testing the idea that order ever existed in the first place.

McCarthy continues his doom-saying.

Although many people may see the changes as quaint or charming – butterflies certainly brighten up a January day – they are actually among the first concrete signs that the world is indeed set on a global warming course which is likely to prove disastrous if not checked.

In fact, the blurring of the seasons in Britain is now as serious a piece of evidence of climate change as the rapidly increasing melting of ice across the globe, in glaciers and in the land-based and marine ice sheets of the Arctic and the Antarctic.

The phenomenon shows that a whole range of organisms is already responding actively to the greatest environmental change in human history, in a way that people – and especially politicians – are not

It is undeniable confirmation that a profound alteration in the environment, the consequences of which are likely to prove catastrophic, is already under way.

It is happening so quickly, and without people realising its true significance, because, in Britain, the major effects of climate change are initially being felt as less cold winters, rather than as hotter summers.

Did you get that? In case you missed it AN EARLY SPRING MEANS WE’RE DOOMED, AND WE’RE GOING TO DIE! Yet McCarthy can’t even get his facts straight…

Last month, that shift 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.

The Snowdrop is not an archetypal winter flower, but a spring flower, as Evans in the Guardian points out, quoting botanist Ray Woods:

The cues that trigger bloom in spring flowers are complex. “Snowdrops this year are not particularly early,” Woods says. “The reason for this is that the cue for snowdrop flowering is the temperature of the previous autumn, not the current spring. If autumn is mild, snowdrops flower later in the following spring; if it’s cold, they flower earlier. 

And the red admiral is not a summer butterfly, but in fact famous for being the last butterfly of the autumn, and earliest in the year. As the Wikipedia article on the Red Admiral tells us:

In northern Europe, it is one of the last butterflies to be seen before winter sets in, often feeding on the pale fire of ivy flowers on sunny days. The Red Admiral is also known to hibernate, re-emerging individuals showing prominently darker colourings than first brood subjects. The butterfly also flies on sunny winter days, especially in southern Europe.

Being on the Southwest coast, in the path of the warm currents, the Dorset climate itself is especially mild, and the sunniest region of the UK.

What McCarthy believes to be a harbinger of death is in fact barely even an anomaly. But why let facts get in the way of good climate change story? Butterflies and snowdrops aren’t ‘archetypes’ of a confused climate on the brink of catastrophe, but McCarthy’s article is an archetype of poorly-researched, ignorant, opportunistic and alarmist climate activism, dressed up as journalism.

Antediluvian Diluvial Delusions

According to news reports:

British scientists say a soon-to-be-released study supports the idea that global warming caused by humans is responsible for this summer’s heavy rains.

Let’s face it, it would be nice to be able to blame somebody for this rubbish summer, with everything from music festivals to electricity being cancelled due to broken river banks. But no self-respecting scientist would be saying anything like this quite so soon after recent events. In fact, the self-respecting scientists behind the Nature paper on which these reports are based make no such claims. From the abstract:

…Here we compare observed changes in land precipitation during the twentieth century averaged over latitudinal bands with changes simulated by fourteen climate models. We show that anthropogenic forcing has had a detectable influence on observed changes in average precipitation within latitudinal bands, and that these changes cannot be explained by internal climate variability or natural forcing. We estimate that anthropogenic forcing contributed significantly to observed increases in precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes, drying in the Northern Hemisphere subtropics and tropics, and moistening in the Southern Hemisphere subtropics and deep tropics. The observed changes, which are larger than estimated from model simulations, may have already had significant effects on ecosystems, agriculture and human health in regions that are sensitive to changes in precipitation, such as the Sahel.

Spot the difference anyone?

Would this summer have been any better had humans never got round to experimenting with combustion? It’s impossible to say. What is easier to say is that life (summers included) in a cave is less fun than life on a housing development that sits on a flood plain. Yet the search for blame continues. Under the headline “A 21st Century Catastrophe“, the Independent writes that

Flood-ravaged Britain is suffering from a wholly new type of civil emergency, it is clear today: a disaster caused by 21st-century weather. This weather is different from anything that has gone before.

What has gone before – and is different – is a significant number of articles in the Independent telling us to expect hotter, drier summers, apparently contradicting the current message. So why are they suddenly confident in this attribution of blame? It’s far too early to start making statements about what is to blame for July’s weather – let alone climate. Yet journalists will attribute any phenomenon to anthropogenic global warming if it’s an opportunity to etch the political messages of environmentalism into our minds, even if it flatly contradicts what they told us yesterday.

Contrary to what Michael McCarthy writes in the Independent, John Kettley (is a weather man, a weather man, a weather man) tells us in ‘Global warming? No, just an old-style British summer‘ that

This year’s apparently extraordinary weather is no more sinister than a typical British summer of old and a reminder of why Mediterranean holidays first became so attractive to us more than 40 years ago… In my view, none of the severe weather we have experienced is proof of ‘climate change.’ It is just a poor summer – nothing more, nothing less – something that was the norm throughout most of the Sixties and has been repeated on several occasions more recently.

There is no doubt that July’s weather is a disaster for people living in areas which have flooded. But it is a disaster caused not by the weather, but by a failure to plan. Well before we start looking at what climate conditions were playing out, we ought to be looking at changes in land and river use, and why Britain’s civil infrastructure cannot cope with anything but mild summers and mild winters. Schools are shut, roads melt and trains are stopped by falling leaves, sunny spells and ‘the wrong type of snow’, and of course, we get floods every other year. Perhaps the nation’s planners are investing too much confidence in what they read in the pages of the Independent and the Guardian. Still, it’s nice weather for quacks.