When a Butterfly Flaps Its Wings, Environmentalists Just Flap

by | May 12, 2008

We’re glad to see that the BBC has removed the error we flagged up on Thursday. Where it said

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

it now reads

The scientists predicted such species would struggle to cope with the 2-4 degrees Celsius rise in tropical temperatures predicted for the late 21st Century. 

It’s certainly not as ridiculously alarmist as it was. But we are no less confused as to where the new figure, 2-4 degrees Celsius, comes from than we were with the last one. It looks like some sort of hybrid between AR4 projections for tropical sea temperature increase and global average surface temperature rise. Which is odd, given that temperatures in the tropics are expected to increase less than those at the poles and temperate regions.

Anyway, we missed a trick with our last post on the issue. As commenters have reminded us, mosquitoes are insects too. But they’re the sort of insects that spread tropical diseases and, given that we already know that climate change change will be a Bad Thing, they must, therefore, be expected to buck the trend and increase in numbers and range as a result of climate change, spreading tropical disease as they go. Alex Cull puts it rather nicely:

Cuddly species such as polar bears and koalas, pretty butterflies and other cute creatures such as pandas and dolphins will suffer massive extinctions. At the same time, we will see a rise in nasty, unpleasant species such as weasels and wolverines, anopheles mosquitos, icky bacteria and other creepy-crawlies such as slugs, snails and puppy-dog tails. No arguments please. 

Climate change is bad for insects; but it’s good for bad insects. Another BBC article reveals that it is good for British butterflies, too – but in a bad way…

Butterflies need a warm summer in order to help numbers recover from last year’s washout, say conservationists.

Data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme showed that eight species were at an all-time low as a result of an unsuccessful summer in 2007.

The main reason behind the decline was an above average rainfall, which meant the insects, such as the common blue, had fewer chances to feed or breed.

In other words, Britain’s butterflies would benefit from the sort of warmer, drier summer that we are told we’ll be getting more of as a result of climate change. (Although given that the BBC also reported recently that the “Next decade ‘may see no warming'”, what are the chances of that?) And yet, UK Biodiversity Minister (yes, there really is such a thing) Joan Ruddock still manages to twist things around so that it becomes a climate change scare story:

Butterfly populations also indicate the speed and extent of climate change. We will provide every encouragement for those working to conserve them. 

OK, so it’s hard to blame the BBC this time. But imagine the headline had the butterflies suffered after a particularly hot, dry summer.

These various reports on single studies/comments support an argument made a while back by Joe Kapinsky:

the genre of ‘study published today’ stories holds back understanding rather than enhancing it 

Science just doesn’t work in the way that the media generally portrays it, as an accumulation of individual studies that are like separate pieces in a giant jigsaw of truth. Science proceeds by replication, rejection, corroboration, falsification, stumbling up blind alleys, reformulation etc etc. It’s messy.

The only purpose this sort of science reporting serves is drama. It’s science as soap opera – it’s what we tune into when there is nothing else worth watching. It merely provides environmental politics with its latest installment of salacious talking points.


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