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…

Only Four Years Left to Save Environmentalism

Another sure sign that environmentalists are struggling to sustain a rational basis for their influence emerged last week. The pages of the Observer featured the opinion of NASA activist/scientist James Hansen in two articles [1 , 2] and an editorial.

Barack Obama has only four years to save the world. That is the stark assessment of Nasa scientist and leading climate expert Jim Hansen who last week warned only urgent action by the new president could halt the devastating climate change that now threatens Earth. Crucially, that action will have to be taken within Obama’s first administration, he added.

Of all the hopes pinned on Obama, ‘saving the world’ has to be the most revealing of the hoper, be it the Observer Journalist, the Observer, or Hansen.

As we pointed out last Thursday, the environmental movement’s only leverage is the prospect of catastrophe. It has no popular appeal in any real sense. So when it appears that governments are ‘on-message’, or in any way sympathetic to its concerns, the only way to sustain its undemocratic and unaccountable influence is to escalate the sense of urgency, or their function will become redundant.

This suggests that the hoper’s nervousness is owed, not to material facts about the state of the world – obviously – but their inability to explain the world, and their tenuous grip on the public agenda.

As an apparently sympathetic Obama steps to the fold, so we see the environmental protagonists escalating the sense of crisis.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer. We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world. America must take the lead.”

After eight years of opposing moves to combat climate change, thanks to the policies of President George Bush, the US had given itself no time for manoeuvre, he said. Only drastic, immediate change can save the day and those changes proposed by Hansen – who appeared in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and is a winner of the World Wildlife Fund’s top conservation award – are certainly far-reaching.

So where did this ‘four years’ figure come from?

In 2006, the same Hansen had argued that

“I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change … no longer than a decade, at the most,” Hansen said Wednesday at the Climate Change Research Conference in California’s state capital.

Less than two and a half years later, the ten years is reduced to four years.

Shortly after Hansen made his ten year claim, UK and Dutch premiers Tony Blair and Jan Peter Balkenende wrote in a letter to the EU that

The science of climate change has never been clearer. Without further action, scientists now estimate we may be heading for temperature rises of at least 3-4C above pre-industrial levels. We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points. These would have serious consequences for our economic growth prospects, the safety of our people and the supply of resources, most notably energy. So we must act quickly.

The fact that science hasn’t – indeed, cannot – identify ‘catastrophic tipping points’ doesn’t bother politicians who use science in this way. The concept of a tipping point is only useful to politicians – it has little scientific meaning. It is a gun to your head. Do you trust the authority of the man holding it, or do you challenge it? If you don’t do as he says and you’re wrong, you might trigger the tipping point. You lose. But if you’re right to challenge it, the trust we have in politicians, and politics built around the myth of catastrophe itself disintegrates. You lose. Either way, the threat is that society breaks down, because either the climate will change, destroying our ‘fragile relationship’ with nature, or the myths on which authority is established are ripped from beneath it. This is the politics of fear.

Greens have presented themselves as radical alternatives to mainstream politics. But they use exactly the same language. In November 2007, we reported Caroline Lucas’s attempts to use ‘catastrophic tipping points’ to elevate herself.

Well, when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

This was the second time we had picked up on Lucas’s claim that the planet had a deadline. Justifying her claim that climate change denial was equivalent to holocaust denial, she had said previously that

What’s prompted me is real concern that a recent opinion poll showed that half the population still don’t think that there’s scientific certainty about climate change; they still think there’s a real debate to be had there. And it worries me enormously because if we don’t have a population that really understands that 99.999% of international scientists do believe that climate change is happening and do believe that it’s human caused, if people don’t understand that then they’re not going to put the pressure on the politicians that is so desperately needed and so urgently needed because we’re being told we’ve literally got between five and ten years in which to put in place a proper policy framework to address climate change. And unless people are really convinced that it’s a problem they’re not going to act to change it.

Last year, vulcanologist Bill McQuire announced that we had just ‘seven years to save the planet‘ in a book of the same name. Amazon describe it thus,

‘Bill McGuire succinctly tackles a series of green queries… the book is an excellent first stop for getting clued up about climate change. ‘ METRO ‘..author Bill McGuire points out that to salvage a civilisation capable of maintaining a semblance of organisation approximate to what we have now, we must achieve a near-zero carbon economy by 2050’. GREENEVENTS ‘McGuire makes telling points about the size of the challenge we face if we are to escape some of the nastier effects of climate change. And his sense of urgency is well-placed.’ FOCUS

(Where would McGuire be, if it weren’t for the end of the world? Certainly not making numerous appearances on TV shows, or selling books. Doom is big business.)

In August last year, policy director and head of the climate change programme at the New Economics Foundation, Andrew Simms announced that we had just ‘100 months to save the world‘.

So, how exactly do we arrive at the ticking clock of 100 months? It’s possible to estimate the length of time it will take to reach a tipping point. To do so you combine current greenhouse gas concentrations with the best estimates for the rates at which emissions are growing, the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases allowable to forestall potentially irreversible changes to the climate system, and the effect of those environmental feedbacks. We followed the latest data and trends for carbon dioxide, then made allowances for all human interferences that influence temperatures, both those with warming and cooling effects. We followed the judgments of the mainstream climate science community, represented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on what it will take to retain a good chance of not crossing the critical threshold of the Earth’s average surface temperature rising by 2C above pre-industrial levels. We were cautious in several ways, optimistic even, and perhaps too much so. A rise of 2C may mask big problems that begin at a lower level of warming. For example, collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is more than likely to be triggered by a local warming of 2.7C, which could correspond to a global mean temperature increase of 2C or less. The disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could correspond to a sea-level rise of up to 7 metres.

Is it four years or is it six? Or is it ten or fifteen? The tipping point is being used by everyone. The only thing that differs is when this tipping point is supposed to occur.

The idea of a ‘tipping point’ began as scientific speculation that climate systems ‘flip’ from one ‘state’ to another, rather than change as one variable – the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere – changes. This idea armed environmentalists with the threat that a changing climate would suddenly – rather than over the course of millenia – reach a point where climate change was so rapid that natural processes on which human society depends would in turn collapse, leaving us starved of resources, and unable to cope with the new conditions.

The problem for environmentalists is that no such ‘tipping point’ has been identitifed by climate science, and the social consequences of moving past tipping points remain poorly defined. The NEF, for example, cannot point to any scientific literature which identifies tipping points. Instead, their 100 month calculation is formed from a variety of headline statements and studies taken from here, there, and everywhere. (They invent a tipping point).

Take for example, the figure of 2 degrees which Simms says is the point which must not be exceeded. The more technical document accompanying his article and campaign website says that this figure,

… is the maximum acceptable level of temperature rise agreed by the European Union and others as necessary to retain reasonable confidence of preventing uncontrollable and ultimately catastrophic warming.

The report doesn’t say where the rationale behind the figure of 2 degrees can be located, nor why we should take the EU’s word for it. Moreover, what is the ‘reasonable confidence’ that the NEF want to ‘retain’ about the future? It implies that what lies beyond 2 degrees is not ‘reasonable confidence’ of there being a catastrophe, but less certainty about there not being one. In other words, it says nothing about climate – 2 degrees is not a tipping point, but an arbitrary point, beyond which we can be less certain about the end of the world than before it. We might just as well observe that ‘catastrophe’ is less likely before a 1000 degree rise in global temperature than after it.

We’ve pointed out before that this is ‘politics by numbers’. In this game, all you need to do to elevate yourself over your opponents is add one to their offer. This done by commissioning someone with the appropriate letters after their name to do back-of-an-envelope calculations using the figures which have already been ‘established’ by other players in the game. It is voodoo science, and it only means anything if you already actually believe it.

Once you have performed the ritual which establishes the new magic numbers, you can present your manifesto. And so it is with the NEF. Their ‘Green New Deal‘ document is

Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programme launched in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929, this modernised version is designed to tackle our current crash: the interlinked crises of climate change, recession and energy depletion.

It goes on…

The global economy is facing a ‘triple crunch’: a combination of a credit-fuelled financial crisis, accelerating climate change and soaring energy prices underpinned by encroaching peak oil. It is increasingly clear that these three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the like of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, with potentially devastating consequences.

As we pointed out recently, one of those three crunch factors – high oil prices – is already a non fact. Like Hansen, the NEF and the Green New Deal Group elevate themselves with these kind of statements. But soon their forecasts will catch up with them.

Following Obama’s inauguration, and the NEF’s attempts to cast their ideas as the contemporary equivalent of Roosevelt’s New Deal it seems appropriate to answer Hansen’s demands to the new president with words from Roosevelt’s inuagural address.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

Obama himself mentions fear:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

If Obama is really to choose ‘hope over fear’, he will have to challenge the influence of the likes of Hansen. Can he do it? Well, we hope so.

A Notional Trust

Two articles in the Guardian/Observer this weekend seem to have stretched reports produced by conservationists to effect the maximum possible alarm.

On Saturday, the Guardian reported that the National Trust had produced an audit of climate change effects on wildlife in the UK. 

British wildlife may not survive third wet summer, warns National Trust

 A third miserable summer in parts of the UK could spell disaster for many species of insects, bird life and mammals, the National Trust warns today.

The charity says three wet summers in a row in many regions could mean that creatures – ranging from crane flies (often called daddy-long-legs) to species of butterflies, members of the tit family, puffins and bats – may struggle to survive in some places.

Matthew Oates, a nature conservation adviser for the trust, said: “After two very poor years in a row we desperately need a good summer in 2009 – otherwise it’s going to look increasingly grim for a wealth of wildlife in the UK.

“Climate change is not some future prediction of what might happen. It’s happening now and having a serious impact on our countryside every year.”

The warning comes in a yearly audit produced by the National Trust of how the weather in 2008 affected wildlife.

It was indeed a bad year – for humans. But was 2008 really an unusual year for climate and wildlife?

The year began curiously, according to the audit, with sightings of red admiral butterflies and white-tailed bumblebees in January and February. Many naturalists think it is probably a bad idea for such creatures to be out and about so early. The bees were badly hit by snow and frost in April.

As we reported at the time, it is not unusual to see red admiral butterflies in January. According to the audit “snowdrops and crocuses emerge earlier than normal” in January. But as we also reported, the timing of snowdrops is determined not by the prevailing conditions of the winter, but of the previous Autumn. As for bees, the Natural History Museum website informs us,

In towns and cities in the south [the white tailed bumble bee] commonly continues to forage through the winter where suitable flower resources are available.

The National Trust can say nothing about January or February that is unusual, or points to climate change, and a deleterious effect of climate change on wildlife.     

Heavy rain during mid-May meant hard times for early-summer insects, which in turn meant many blue tit and great tit nests failed. In June, coastal birds such as choughs, kittiwakes and razorbills bred late and reared few young. In July, puffin numbers on the Farne Islands were down 35% in five years.

The audit printed in the Guardian echoes the article:

May
• Heavy rain makes life hard for early-summer insects, such as the marsh fritillary butterfly.
 • Many nests fail, including those of great and blue tits […], due to the lack of insects and foul weather.

Heavy rain in May? Not according to the UK’s Met Office, who report that rainfall in May across the UK was just 73% of average. In England, it was higher at 109%, and Southern England it was up still at 145%. This was a local effect. And an increase of 45% is not what you’d call ‘heavy rain’.

Foul weather? Again, not according to the Met Office, who reported that the UK saw 114% of the sunshine it might have expected during May. In the South of England, this was 102%. The UK’s temperature was 2.3 degrees warmer than average, as was the rest of the country.     

The audit continues to say of June that it was a “poor summer for insects such as butterflies, moths, hoverflies, ladybirds and dragonflies”. But the Met Office says that June was 0.4 degrees warmer than average for Southern England, and similar throughout the rest of the UK. The month brought an entirely average amount of sunshine, and less than average rainfall for the South (78%), and slightly above average (110%) for the UK. How can an average month be a poor summer for insects?

On to August. The audit claims

• Few wasps around as the poor weather hinders nest building.
• Two types of cabbage white butterfly, the large white and small white, are unusually plentiful as their predators are depleted by poor weather.
• Crickets and grasshoppers scarcely sing all month. Bats’ staple food, insects, are seriously affected by the heavy rain.

August was a disappointing month. But the Met Office shows that the UK experienced just 54% more rainfall than ‘usual’. This might mean nothing more than it rained one day out of every two more than it would ‘normally’. The UK average rainfall for August is around 90mm. It got 140mm. That makes for a boring Summer, but it’s no torrent of biblical proportions. Hardly a harbinger of doom in a series which is just 31 days long. There were also significant regional differences. Northern Ireland, for example, saw 213% of the rain it ‘usually’ gets according to the MO’s climate statistics. The South of England saw 152%, but the South East (part of the South) saw 125%, while the South West (also part of the South) got 171%. Temperatures in all regions were above average. The only remarkable thing was that it was the ‘dullest’ August in the record, since 1929 at 67% of normal, or 115 hours of sunshine. It is fair to say then, that it was a cloudy August, but that’s not consistent with any observable trend, or change that can be attributed to ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’.

As a graph comparing the August sunshine, temperature and rainfall anomalies in England over the last century shows, August 2008 is generally unremarkable. In fact, looking at this graph, it’s hard to say anything about England’s climate that would be consistent with the claims that it is changing, or becoming hostile to wildlife – it is a very variable graph. So it’s even harder to know what Matthew Oates, a nature conservation adviser for the National Trust means when he says,

Climate change is not some future prediction of what might happen. It’s happening now and having a serious impact on our countryside every year.

In what way is climate change happening now? And how can it be having an effect on our countryside?

On Sunday, the Guardian’s Sunday paper, the Observer, ran a similar story. [http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/28/wildlife-animals-conservation]

Third of Britain’s mammals ‘at risk’

Oh No! We’re mammals!

Climate change and habitat loss have led to a dramatic increase in the number of mammals whose future survival is a cause for concern among conservationists, the study commissioned by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species concludes. The Bechstein’s bat, one of the country’s rarest mammals, has shown a marked decline while the number of soprano pipistrelle bats has fallen by 46% in six years.

A visit to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) website doesn’t lead us to this study. They don’t seem to have published it yet. Which is odd, isn’t it, given the dramatic headlines it has generated. We’ll try and get hold of it. Meanwhile, the Observer article continues,

Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions, combined with hotter, drier summers and wetter winters, were causing changes in the distribution and behaviour of some species, such as the hazel dormouse, the study finds.

‘Unpredictable and extreme weather conditions’? Does this mean that the poor bats and mice have declined in numbers because they got caught in a rainstorm they weren’t ‘expecting’? What does ‘unpredictability’ have to do with population decline? And when was UK weather ever ‘predictable’? As the graph above shows, there is a great deal of variation in England’s weather. But ‘extreme’ it has not been.

We hear a lot about hotter, drier summers, and wetter winters. But how true are the claims made about them? We took the statistics generously supplied by the Met Office, and put them into Excel. The following graph compares temperatures for each season in England, between 1915 and 2007, with 10 year moving averages.

What strikes first is that it isn’t the Summer in England which shows the greatest change, but the other three seasons. There is a fairly substantial year-to-year variation of average temperature. If the moving average represents a trend, it doesn’t lead to anything we could safely regard as ‘extreme’.

Spring and Autumn exhibit much more significant recent warming trends, which might lead us to imagine that they could represent ‘extremes’. Except that, as transitions between states, they cannot be ‘extreme’ any more than a middle can be an end.

Winters look as though they may have been getting warmer recently, but by the standards of Winters in the 1920-30s, they look fairly normal, having gotten colder between 1930 and the 1970s, then warming up again.

Next, we looked at the amount of rainfall in the winter and summer.

Winters have been getting wetter, according to the moving average. But there is also a great deal of variation. So it is hard to imagine what recent ‘extremes’ would would consist of. It could be said that wetter summers were getting slightly more frequent, but again, in what sense does this constitute ‘extreme’ weather, rather than more frequently ‘slightly worse than mild’? And what does it say about the claim that summers have been getting drier? 

Summers since 1980 have not been getting any drier, according to the moving average. They did get drier in the ’70s and ’80s. Clearly, then, there is no substance to the claim that England is experiencing drier summers because of climate change. 

So, England’s climate is no less ‘predictable’ than it ever has been. It is no more ‘extreme’ than it ever has been. Winters have been getting slightly wetter, and the summers slightly warmer. But it would be an over statement to say they are getting ‘hotter’.

Back to the animals. We were wondering at this point: fluffy creatures don’t live in abstract climates such as ‘the south’ of England, so what sense does it make to use data about the whole of England, or large parts of it? If we want to know why, or how, animals have responded to climate in a given area, there is little point in looking at aggregate data – averages of averages of averages. Whether or not global warming is happening, the effects that local populations will experience are local. We ought to look at data from a single station. After all, the Guardian’s article explained…

The weather was not terrible across the country all year – some areas such as the north-west, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland got some rather good conditions. But in places such as the Cotswolds and parts of the Thames Valley and south-east, Oates said there was an awful lot of very bad weather for wildlife.

It is the cumulative effect of bad weather that can be so damaging. If there is one poor summer a species might be lost from a parish here and there. If there are two, the loss is likely to be across two or three parishes. But if there are three consecutive washouts, whole counties could lose species.

(Notice that according to the article, Northern Ireland ‘got some rather good conditions’. But according to the Met Office, it got 213% of the rainfall it normally gets in August, while the Thames Valley was characterised as having ‘ awful lot of very bad weather’ and only got 125%. This makes no sense whatsoever.)

We decided to look at the data from one station near the locations mentioned in the quote above: Oxford. Oxford is just beyond the edge of the Cotswolds, in the Thames Valley, and in the South East. We should be able to see something in the data from this station, which might explain why things are getting hard for wild animals there.

First, rain. Have winters been getting either wetter or drier for animals in Oxford?

Not much. And certainly no where near as much as in the early part of the last century. But the bunny rabbits, the dormice, and all things great and small survived. So how about the summers – has there been any recent change in Oxford’s summer rain?

Curiously, it seems that ‘climate change’ has brought some stability to the levels of rain in Oxford since about 1980. 

So how about temperature. How has Oxford’s temperature changed in recent years, that might cause problems for its flora and fauna? We took the middle month (January, April, July, October) of each season to see what they said about how much climate has changed. First: maximum temperature.
There has been a recent warming trend for July. But it’s not yet any more extreme than it was at the beginning of the previous century, which saw far more dramatic changes. October has been getting warmer. But again, it has been since about 1900. And there is some significant variability in its history. Ditto April, which shows a warming trend since 1980 that mirrors a cooling trend since 1960, which follows a rather rapid warming. Winter shows a great deal of variability, with the current trend peaking at slightly greater than the trend in the mid 1900s. 
Next, minimum temperature. 
July’s minimum temperatures don’t quite seem as cold as they were in the 1800s, but all of the warming seems to have happened before 15 years ago, and from 1920. October minimums have been fairly variable since about 1970, but less so since, having been on an upward march since 1930 to 1970. April’s minimums do show a recent increase, but again, nothing like as variable as the trend between 1850 and 1944. Similarly, the January minimum temperature has been all over the place, never settling on any trend that reflects anything ‘stable’.  

Climate in Oxford has changed before… um… climate change… err… changed the climate. Oxford’s wildlife never existed in the ‘stable’ climate that reports about their demise seem to imply. Its history shows substantial variation. Yet animals survived here. Whether or not reports about the decline of animal populations or diversity have any truth to them, attributing population trends to ‘climate change’ is highly premature.  

Back to the articles. We’d spent many hours this weekend trying to work out how the National Trust and PTES had conducted their research. How big were the population studies? What areas and how many species did they focus on? How had they projected from this study to make a statement about the country more generally, and attributed it to climate change?  

This was a waste of time. We rang the National Trust on Monday afternoon, to ask them how they had carried out their ‘audit’. They told us that it was compiled from anecdotal (yes, that was their word) data, from staff at their various sites. There were no population studies. We rang the PTES to see if there was any more substance to their report, but they are still on their holidays.  

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last 18 months, it’s that stories about climate change may be wild and preposterous just as long as they encourage the idea that climate change is getting worse. You can pluck something out of thin air, and no one will call you a denier, nor challenge your sanity, motivation, or moral character. Lies are allowed, just as long as they are ‘good’ lies, and help people to believe that the world is on the brink of collapse, even if the facts don’t support the idea. 

But we’ll be charitable here, because we can’t know what happened between the National Trust and the journalists at the Guardian/Observer. What we can say is that their journalists aren’t being very critical about the ‘research’ they are reporting. The headlines of articles in the Guardian are not based on robust research, but on anecdotal data compiled by an organisation which has made clear its intentions to turn itself into a pressure group.  

In July last year, we reported on how the The National Trust, was reinventing itself as a campaigning organisation. The organisation, which owns 1.5% of England, Wales and N. Ireland, and has an income in excess of £1billion ($1.5billion) wasn’t just going to tell us how we used to live by preserving sites of national heritage, it would now tell people how they should live,     

From now on, said director-general Fiona Reynolds, the trust will advise people how to adapt their lifestyles to climate change and challenge government to be more ecologically aware. “If we think that public policy is not right, then we will say so.”

When we spoke to the National Trust about their ‘audit’, we were expecting to be pointed to a long dry, boring document of facts and figures. But no such research existed”It’s on our website” they said, and it was fairly similar to the one printed in the Guardian. It seems that there’s a reluctance to challenge statements issued by organisations such as the National Trust, and an inclination to turn them into dramatic headlines. 

This isn’t really a story about ‘bad science’, or bad journalism. Though it is worth asking what the point of journalists actually is if they can’t reflect critically on whatever it is they are reporting, to ask about the direction it will take us in, and what interests and agendas that are being served by the use of this kind of ‘research’. What is really curious about this all too common phenomenon is the gap between ‘research’ and the story lines it is used to construct.
 
We’ve called this process ‘Chinese whispers’ in the past: weak and rather inconsequential ‘research’ is stripped of caveats and caution removing it of any scientific meaning it had. The headlines of research are thereby amplified in the media, and the idea that the end of the world is approaching is assumed to have some authority: it came from scientists, rather than the short-sightedness of journalists. What is ‘abused’ in all of this is not ‘science’, but the trust that the public has in institutions. All the more an irony, then, that the ‘National Trust’, which is assuming to tell us how to live, should be at the centre of this story.
 
These whispers circulate, and the claim ‘climate change is happening’ can be used without any respect for proportion. Yes, clearly climate has changed. But it always has, and animals survived. There is little that is unusual about the change we can see in terms of magnitude, or direction, or its significance to wildlife. Yet because the maxim that ‘climate change is happening’ has such gravity, any context that the change exists within is forgotten, or ignored. This is true of virtually all of the stories we have covered over the last twenty months. Climate trends -which probably do have some scientific credibility – are observed, and reported, but then are attached to alarming stories that amount to little more than science fiction. They spell the end of the world in one shape or another, but they are all founded on mythology.  

At the heart of all this is the idea – the myth – that there exist narrow ‘optimal’ conditions for animal and human life, sudden changes to which will preclude any form of biological or societal adaptation. Of course we can see that mass extinctions followed traumatic events in Earth’s history. But what we’re seeing in the ‘extremely’ mild climate of rural Oxfordshire, the Cotsworlds, or the Thames Valley is not equivalent to meteors striking the planet’s surface, or super massive volcanoes filling the atmosphere with toxic ash, but changes in trends of less than one standard deviation. In this nervous state, anything north or south of mild becomes ‘extreme’. Anthropogenic climate change is assumed to be responsible for anything that it could by any stretch of the imagination be vaguely plausibly responsible for. Combined with the maxims that ‘climate change is happening’ and that it ‘will continue to happen’, the assumption allows any negative trend to be projected ad infinitum. So a species whose numbers have diminished are assumed to be on an inevitable path to imminent extinction, because climate change mythology (not science) makes it true. Trends are given so much significance that one could imagine that some kind of Copernican revolution had happened, identifying and determining the trajectory of all trends around the centre of a carbon universe. But this revolution is not the result of any observation of the real world, and the relationship between the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and the plight of dormice in the Thames Valley remains poorly understood, and very ill defined.  

And why would dormice – who’ve been around for a hell of a long time – be so vulnerable that 3 wet summers threatens them with extinction? Why wouldn’t populations of wild animals fluctuate considerably? Why should we assume that a healthy population maintains similar numbers year-to-year? More importantly, why should any of this assume such political and moral significance that conservationists feel that they can appoint themselves as some kind of authority on what our priorities ought to be, without being challenged?  

Climate Resistance wishes all our readers a happy and prosperous New Year, in spite of the doom-sayers’ attempts to render it as miserable as a Thames Valley Summer. 

Observing the Observer

The Observer (the Sunday Guardian) welcomes the appointment of a Gaia-botherer to Obama’s team.

The decision by Barack Obama to appoint John Holdren as his chief scientific adviser deserves widespread welcome. The Harvard academic and former energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, commands international respect among physicists, climate experts and other researchers. He is an able scientist and is also a vociferous critic of those who still deny our planet is overheating because of humanity’s industrial activities.

Holdren’s perspective on the climate debate is no more sophisticated than George Monbiot’s:

The few climate-change “skeptics” with any sort of scientific credentials continue to receive attention in the media out of all proportion to their numbers, their qualifications, or the merit of their arguments. And this muddying of the waters of public discourse is being magnified by the parroting of these arguments by a larger population of amateur skeptics with no scientific credentials at all.

As John Tierney argues in the NY Times, Holdren confuses politics with science.

Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.

And the Observer does much the same thing. The editorial continues:

Thus Obama, who takes up office on 20 January, has made it clear through Holdren’s appointment that global warming is going to be dealt with robustly by his administration. There is no longer room for doubt. Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making. Accepting this point is heartening news for the US – and for the rest of the world which, until now, has looked in vain for strong leadership from America in combating global warming. It was in part the hope of a change in US climate policy that helped give last November’s presidential elections such keen global interest.

The claim that “Our planet faces a climate catastrophe of our making” lacks scientific foundation, as Professor Mike Hulme explained to the BBC in 2006:

To state that climate change will be “catastrophic” hides a cascade of value-laden assumptions which do not emerge from empirical or theoretical science. […] The language of fear and terror operates as an ever-weakening vehicle for effective communication or inducement for behavioural change.

Even if we take it for granted that a ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change exists, it only speaks about a possible influence of anthropogenic CO2 on the climate, not the outcome of that influence, let alone the best policy response. The remainder is projection and speculation. That is to say that the catastrophic scenarios offered by climate alarmists are not constructed from ‘science’ by scientists, but from projections by a rag-bag of social scientists, economists, political activists, and any old Tom, Dick or Harry who cares to speculate, under (at least) two very significant (but always omitted from the discussion) assumptions.

The first is the precautionary principle. This allows any superficially plausible scenario to have weight in the climate debate by amplifying any possible risk to its maximum; what-if stacked upon what-if stacked upon what-if. The second is environmental determinism – the idea that society’s future (and its history) is determined by climatic factors rather than our ability to adapt and innovate.

These two principles are not science. They are politics. What they create is indistinct from science fiction: catastrophic story-lines are constructed from only superficially plausible projections. Ruling out our ability to adapt to these projections gives the stories political significance – ‘something must be done’. Normal politics is suspended in order to avert the fictional crisis.

The Observer editorial continues:

However, there is more to the elevation of Holdren, a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, than the boosting of US climate action. In selecting a scientist of his stature, Obama is signalling clearly that he will be ending policies, introduced by George W Bush, that saw science sidelined and the advice of its practitioners ignored and sometimes distorted by the White House.

It is unclear what ‘scientific stature’ Holdren is supposed to have that is so remarkable. He might have started out as a scientist, but he’s made a career out of science policy. We couldn’t spot any science in list of publications. He’s not particularly noted for his commentary outside of the climate debate, famous only really for getting things wrong when teaming up with the Godfather of neo-Malthusianism, Paul Ehrlich.

But there’s something even more curious about the Observer’s commentary – that Holdren’s appointment is supposed to be some kind of victory for ‘science’ after the Bush administration. This highlights the vacuity of Bush’s critics (that’s no defence of Bush, by the way). As we can see, this ‘science’, isn’t science. It is catastrophism (via environmental determinism and the precautionary principle), with almost no scientific basis. Yet the idea of catastrophe is the only ‘hold’ Bush’s critics have over him. So it’s not science the Observer is talking about at all. If it is a victory for anything, it is a victory for fear-mongery: exactly what critics (many in the Observer) of Bush (and, for that matter, Tony Blair – ‘dodgy dossier and sexed-up documents) criticised Bush for – for his War on Terror: the use of fear to further his political agenda.

In other words, all that separates Bush from his successors is a fiction. They are at least as remote from science and its rational treatment as he was.

Hundreds of instances of political interference in the work of government agency researchers have been recorded over the past eight years, a shameful state of affairs that led to the demoralisation of thousands of US scientists. With Holdren, Obama has indicated this will now be brought to an end.

Or has it only just begun? If the only weapon that exists in the anti-Bush arsenal is a fiction, which is defended by contempt for scientific debate, what free debate – let alone scientific research – can we expect? Climate science has been thoroughly colonised by political interests.

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.

Polls Apart

One of our major gripes with Environmentalism concerns the claims made by its adherents that it is some sort of popular, grass-roots movement. Time and again, polls suggest otherwise. And yet these polls are rarely, if ever, reported in terms of the undemocratic nature of Environmentalism as it is foisted upon reluctant electorates. Rather, they are presented as evidence that the public are unthinking, selfish morons brainwashed by scheming ‘deniers’.

Of course, everybody – ourselves included – will jump on a poll that can be used to support their own position. Which is why Green activist and winner of the Royal Society’s prestigious prize for popular science (fiction), Mark Lynas, picked up on last week’s ICM/Guardian poll. Writing in Comment is Free, he suggests that, in contrast to previous polls, it

shows that a clear majority favours government action on the environment v the economy, while an even larger majority supports the introduction of green taxes. 

And it does, if you believe that the answers to such leading questions as ‘Generally speaking would you support or oppose the introduction of green taxes, designed to discourage things that are harmful to the environment?’ tell you anything at all about public opinion.

But, his main point is that the poll dispels the myth that concern about climate change is a luxury of the middle-classes:

perhaps the most fascinating result of all emerges from the small print of the different social classes of the ICM survey respondents. Environmentalists are constantly accused of being middle-class lifestyle faddists, who don’t understand the day-to-day financial pressures faced by “ordinary” working people. But the number of people who thought that environment should be the government’s priority rather than the economy was substantially higher (56%) among the lower income, less well-educated DE demographic than among the better-off ABs (47%). Lower-income social groups also have a much lighter environmental footprint overall: only 42% of DEs took a foreign holiday over the last three years, whilst 77% of ABs did. Better-off people also own more cars, as you might expect – only 5% of DEs have three or more cars, whilst 15% of ABs do. 

So perhaps anti-environmental class warriors like the editors of Spiked need to find a new cause to champion. The working-class people who they claim “can’t afford to be concerned about climate change” actually care more about the future of the planet than the rich – and are doing a lot less damage to boot. So next time you hear someone defending motorway expansion or cheap flights on behalf of the British poor, ask yourself the question: whose side are they really on?

Environmentalism might not be popular, you see, but at least it’s equally unpopular across society. Lynas’s view of the “working-class people” has more to do with the idea of the Noble Savage than solidarity with those at the bottom of the social pile. In his world, poverty is something to aspire to rather than alleviate. It’s as if they cause ‘a lot less damage’ as a result of a desire to live in harmony with nature rather than the fact that they are, by definition, less able to afford the luxury of foreign holidays and cars.

Not that we should be surprised. After all, this is the same Mark Lynas who believes that alleviating poverty should be put on hold until the planet has been saved:

The struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for the survival of an intact and functioning biosphere 

Moreover, Lynas’s attention to the ‘small print’ was not as attentive as it could have been. Otherwise he could not have reached the conclusion that he did. Yes, the responses of DE and AB respondents are comparable across the survey, but the demographics of the two groups suggest that there are good reasons for that that have little to do with social class per se. For example, 50% of the DEs were retired, as opposed to 24% for ABs. Only 18% of DEs were working full time, as opposed to 56% for ABs. And 67% of DEs were not working at all (ABs = 30%). In other words, a much higher proportion of DE respondents are unlikely to be affected by environmental tax hikes.

Lynas’s true sentiments about the masses are evident in his reply to commenters who dare to challenge his latest rant against climate change ‘deniers’:

Well I have to say that most of the comments this piece (and many of my others) has attracted simply prove my rather depressing conclusion that a lot of probably very decent people have swallowed the line pumped out by industry-funded US conservative think tanks. Almost ever denialist argument I’ve ever seen first made an appearance courtesy of them – there’s very little in the ‘denialisophere’ (apologies) which is in any way original. 

None of the citations of course mention the peer-reviewed literature, where there isn’t any discussion of whether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, because all the systematic data shows that it is. But it’s pointless to go on digging trenches – and personally I’ve got better things to do than engage with entirely close-minded people. This is a political debate, not a scientific one, and has been for a long time.

Those ‘very decent’ yet ‘entirely closed-minded’ members of the public get the blame whenever polls suggest that they are not giving environmental issues the attention they should be. For example, we reported on last year’s Ipsos Mori’s poll, which found that the majority of people are not convinced that the scientific argument for action on climate change is clear-cut. Report author Phil Downing described the results as ‘disturbing’ and ‘frightening’:

Given the actual consensus and the reality if the situation, it is a particularly disturbing statistic and does suggest one or two things. Firstly the impact of contrarian and negative messages, for example, Channel 4’s great Global Warming Swindle are having an impact. Secondly, if the public is ambivalent, and you have a disconnect between what you believe on the one hand, and how you act on the other. The easiest thing is to change what you believe, rather than how you act. 

We thought these sounded more like the words of an opinion former than an opinion pollster.

A couple of weeks ago, Ipsos Mori produced another report along similar lines, which was reported exclusively by the Observer newspaper:

The majority of the British public is still not convinced that climate change is caused by humans – and many others believe scientists are exaggerating the problem 

And whose fault is that?

There is growing concern that an economic depression and rising fuel and food prices are denting public interest in environmental issues. Some environmentalists blame the public’s doubts on last year’s Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, and on recent books, including one by Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, that question the consensus on climate change. 

We spoke to Downing, on the phone and by email. He told us that, when he used words like ‘frightening’ or ‘disturbing’ after last year’s poll, he was speaking from the perspective of the government who had commissioned it. He also said that any mention of the Swindle and Lord Lawson in the Observer article did not come from him. And anyway, he only mentioned it last year because several poll respondents cited the Swindle when talking about their doubts over the government line.

Phil Downing: [W]hen we released the report last year, we did comment that we had started to note in purely qualitative terms that people were making reference to that programme, or had picked up on some of the secondary press […] So we were saying this might be playing a role because this was the first time we were picking it up. But we see it as more of a correlation in time rather than a causation. We have no evidence of a direct link between The Great Global Warming Swindle, or any other programme for that matter, and what is driving people’s views […] We have no quantative data on the extent to which it is driving it. No one has commissioned research to gauge the impact of The Great Global Warming Swindle or An Inconvenient Truth and how the public are making sense of these different messages. 

Regardless of who made that argument in which year, however, it boils down to the point that it is democracy itself – a free press, debate, and the need to win legitimacy for political ideas by contest – that has beset the environmental movement’s intentions. Never mind the vast resources available to the Greens to push their own agenda. The fact is that the Observer can count on the fingers of two fingers the number of public challenges to environmental orthodoxy, yet Environmentalism is pushed down our throats from nearly every Government department, local authority, NGO and charity, every current affairs program on every TV channel, in every school, and, according to this article in the Shields Gazette, by Downing himself:

Keynote speaker Phil Downing, head of environmental research for Ipsos Mori, will be encouraging councils to ‘think global’ but ‘act local’ and use the regional advice and support available to inspire their communities to help tackle climate change. 

So the question is whether Phil Downing and Ipsos Mori are activists or researchers, opinion pollsters or opinion-formers. We doubt that were he taking such a side on a party-political issue he would be allowed by his employers to make such statements. It suggests that environmental orthodoxy has been established within a certain influential strata of society, who believe it to be ‘above’ politics, as though environmentalism weren’t a political ideology.

Downing told us that the line between pollster and activist is one that he is careful not to cross. And that the Shields Gazette got it wrong – he was there simply to deliver an analysis of public opinion on climate change. If anyone out there happened to attend the event, we’d love to hear from you.

Climate Resistance: Do you have strict guidelines at Ipsos Mori about not crossing that line? 

PD: Yes, it’s something that is strictly frowned upon, if you go into something contributing to one side of a debate and not the other […] there are stringent quality control procedures in place to ensure impartiality at Ipsos MORI – this extends both to the way the questions are asked as well as any material we release into the public domain. A specific and in-house team is required to sign off survey materials. As well as the interpretative text we have published the results in full on the website.

Readers can make up their own minds as to whether Ipsos Mori, in blaming a contrarian tv documentary for the public’s divergence from the government line while failing to consider the possibility that the government’s line just isn’t very convincing, should perhaps have another look at their guidelines.

CR: Is it not more likely that the reticence of the public to take up the governmental line on climate change is the result of an unconvincing governmental message? 

PD: Well, you’re more than welcome to commission a poll from us.

CR: What would that cost?

PD: Depends. If you’re looking at 1000 people, nationally representative, you’re looking at something like £700-1000 per question.

You could almost understand – if not excuse – the failure to consider the strikingly obvious if, say, the government had commissioned it, because, apparently, you get what you pay for with these things. But, intriguingly, the latest poll was not actually commissioned by anybody. Downing said that Ipsos Mori conducted it off their own backs to shed light on the complexity of the public’s attitudes and beliefs towards climate change. And yet, all it has achieved is to restate the fact that the public is ambivalent, and spawn newspaper articles that seek simplistic excuses for that finding.

To a large extent, there’s little point complaining. Everybody knows that polls are not to be taken seriously; that they are frequently spectacularly wrong; that busy people are keen to fob pollsters off with the answer that is expected of them, etc etc. And, to repeat, we are as guilty as anybody of jumping on poll results when it suits us. When push comes to shove, there’s only one type of poll that counts, and that’s the type that is conducted at the polling booths. And elections demonstrate quite clearly how unpopular Environmentalism is with the masses. The Green Party has no MPs in the UK Parliament, and the Green contingent of MEPs voted into seats in the European Parliament comprise just 5% (and the European elections have a notoriously low turn-out).

But even more telling is the spectacular decline in the number of people actually bothering to vote:

Funny how turn-out plummets as awareness of the ‘most pressing challenge of our time’ goes through the roof.

Forget the opinion polls. Contrary to the claims of Environmentalists, few people have really bought into their world-view. If anything, most people are slightly irritated by it. Environmentalism persists only because few people object vehemently to it, and because it’s as good as impossible to vote against it.

Global Warming… Jumping the Shark…

Wikipedia tells us,

The term jumping the shark alludes to a specific scene in a 1977 episode of the TV series Happy Days when the popular character Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli literally jumps over a shark while water skiing. The scene was so preposterous that many believed it to be an ill-conceived attempt at reviving the declining ratings of the flagging show. 

The expression is used to refer to tired TV shows which have similarly passed their peak.

Once a show has “jumped the shark” fans sense a noticeable decline in quality or feel the show has undergone too many changes to retain its original appeal. 

Now, the same is true of the much over-cooked global warming. The Observer reported at the weekend:

Surge in fatal shark attacks blamed on global warming 

But, of course, we need the numbers.

Two deaths in the waters off California and Mexico last week and a spate of shark-inflicted injuries to surfers off Florida’s Atlantic coast have leftbeachgoers seeking an explanation for a sudden surge in the number of strikes. In the first four months of this year, there were four fatal shark attacks worldwide, compared with one in the whole of 2007, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History inGainesville.  

Gosh. Interesting. But correlation and causation, and all that. We ought to be careful. What is the warming climate doing to the sharks, to make them attack us?

‘The one thing that’s affecting shark attacks more than anything else is human activity,’ said Dr George Burgess of Florida University, a shark expert who maintains the database. ‘As the population continues to rise, so does the number of people in the water for recreation. And as long as we have an increase in human hours in the water, we will have an increase in shark bites.’ 

Hmmm. That’s not global warming though, is it?

Some experts suggest that an abundance of seals has attracted high numbers of sharks, while others believe that overfishing has hit their food chain. 

Hmmm. Still not getting the ‘global warming’ thing…

Another contributory factor to the location of shark attacks could be global warming and rising sea temperatures. ‘You’ll find that some species will begin to appear in places they didn’t in the past with some regularity,’ he said. 

“Could be”. Things “regularly appearing” where they hadn’t been “in the past”. We’re not going to worry about it until we see sharks in rollerblading rinks. It turns out that the headline is misleading.

The only sense which can be distilled from this absurd article is that sharks only attack you when you’re wet. Global warming has nothing to do with it.