A Crisis of Faith in Crisis Politics

by | Feb 15, 2009

Two Popes, two statements, two apparent U-turns:

1. The Vatican declares that evolution by natural selection is not incompatible with its teachings and that Intelligent Design is a ‘cultural phenomenon’ rather than a scientific or theological one.

2. Dr Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre warns against climate catastrophism and appeals to scientists to rein in misleading climate change claims:

News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted.

One, however, is more of a U-turn than the other. The Vatican’s statement is not news. It has been making similar statements for the past decade or more. Likewise, Dr Pope is not the first influential climate scientist to criticise climate porn. For example, Professor Mike Hulme has been saying similar things for a couple of years now. What makes Dr Pope’s statement newsworthy, however, is that it represents a U-turn not only for Dr Pope, but for the MET office itself.

Much of Pope’s article is rather sensible. For example:

Recent headlines have proclaimed that Arctic summer sea ice has decreased so much in the past few years that it has reached a tipping point and will disappear very quickly. The truth is that there is little evidence to support this. Indeed, the record-breaking losses in the past couple of years could easily be due to natural fluctuations in the weather, with summer sea ice increasing again over the next few years.

It’s certainly encouraging to see a MET office spokesperson debunking talk of tipping points regarding summer Arctic ice melt. She’s talking about James Hansen, but we highlighted that same problem back in September, in response to comments from NSIDC senior scientist Mark Serreze.

He said:

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

We said:

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.

More sense from Pope:

Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of the science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.

Although she spoils it rather with her next sentence:

Both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are profound and will be severe if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically and swiftly over the coming decades.

No. She would be equally (un)justified if she said that both undermine the basic facts that the implications of climate change are up for debate. Of course, it is true that climate change poses problems that must be confronted. Just as it is true that our understanding of the effects of climate change is rudimentary. It is not the case that overplaying and underplaying natural variations in weather both undermine one of those more than the other. Both do, however, undermine the ability of society to make plans informed by the best available evidence.

Anyway, others have noted how Pope’s comments sit uncomfortably with her own statements in the recent past about the effects of climate change, and we have ourselves flagged up the MET’s over-interpretation of data for dramatic effect.

The most amusing reaction comes from climate guru Joseph Romm, who goes a long way to doing our job for us. Referring to an article written by Pope in December for the Times, he writes:

Pope herself is the principal source of the major recent apocalyptic prediction made by climate scientists — ironically in a December article in the Guardian [sic], “Met Office warn of ‘catastrophic’ rise in temperature”

Well, quite. Romm falls out with Pope because, in his world, the apocalyptic claims she refers to are not actually apocalyptic, but statements of fact.

If Pope wants to criticise climate catastrophism, that’s just fine with us. We hope, however, that she appreciates the enormity of the job she has taken on. It’s all too easy to cherry pick a handful of silly statements made by a few over-enthusiastic scientists and desperate reporters. But the fact is that such language is at the very core of environmental politics. So, by way of assisting her in her project, here’s a few bigger fish for Pope to get her teeth into…

Tony Blair, former UK Prime Minister:

We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points.

Mr Blair said the consequences for the planet of inaction were “literally disastrous”. “This disaster is not set to happen in some science fiction future many years ahead, but in our lifetime,” he said. Investment now will pay us back many times in the future, not just environmentally but economically as well.”

We are headed toward catastrophic tipping points in our climate unless we act

Gordon Brown, UK Prime Minister:

So the new settlement also requires another great and historic endeavour to end the dictatorship of oil and to avert catastrophic climate change

David Cameron – Leader of the Conservative Opposition:

the threat of imminent, irreversible, and catastrophic change to the climate of our planet should prompt us to challenge any perceived consensus on green growth

If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth.

Lord Professor Sir Nicholas Stern:

The possibility of avoiding a global catastrophe is “already almost out of reach”, Sir Nicholas Stern’s long-awaited report on climate change will warn today.

President Barack Obama:

Today we’re seeing that climate change is about more than a few unseasonably mild winters or hot summers. It’s about the chain of natural catastrophes and devastating weather patterns that global warming is beginning to set off around the world.. the frequency and intensity of which are breaking records thousands of years old.

John Gloster, Met Office Research Scientist:

The arrival of Bluetongue disease in the UK in recent years is evidence that changing climate is already impacting animal health. The Met Office, working with other interested parties, is taking the lead in providing the advice and solutions government, veterinary experts and farmers will need to mitigate against the effects of climate change on animal and plant health in the future.



    What like Prof Chris field? Turns out AGW is gonna be worse then predicted – I am not sure how it could be much worse than some predictions other then The End now having a cast of Daemons added or a musical score by Coldplay.

    Luckily there’s some cold science here – which I think runs like this – hot stuff dries – dry stuff burns – Global warming + wood = fire.

    I have run a skeptical Climate modeling program – turns out rising sea levels quench the flames


  2. Alex Cull

    There’s something of an irony here. Vicky Pope in The Guardian, 11th February: “News headlines vie for attention and it is easy for scientists to grab this attention by linking climate change to the latest extreme weather event or apocalyptic prediction. But in doing so, the public perception of climate change can be distorted.”

    Then just four days later there’s James Hansen in The Observer (Guardian), 15th February, talking of “death trains” and “death factories”, and telling us “we will destroy the planet we know.”

    And as CO2LDPLAY has mentioned, there’s Dr Field now predicting that future temperatures “will be beyond anything” predicted.

    Here’s my own modest prediction: that in the run-up to Copenhagen later this year, we will see a sizeable increase in exactly the kind of “apocalyptic prediction” now being warned against by Vicky Pope.

  3. harbinger

    This record is stuck in the groove a little, this is another one in the series:
    Reuters, Fri, 28 Sep 2007 http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/

    Oslo – A record melt of Arctic summer sea ice this month may be a sign that global warming is reaching a critical trigger point that could accelerate the northern thaw, some scientists say.

    “The reason so much (of the Arctic ice) went suddenly is that it is hitting a tipping point that we have been warning about for the past few years,” James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Reuters.

    In Germany, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says Arctic sea ice has “already tipped”.

    “I’d say we are reaching a tipping point or are past it for the ice. This is a strong indication that there is an amplifying mechanism here,” said Paal Prestrud of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

    “But that’s more or less speculation. There isn’t scientific documentation other than the observations,” he said.

    So no science but we’ll say it anyway because we know how the Press will handle it….

  4. Ben

    Pretty much anyone I speak to now who has a remote interest in the climate change story and data thinks the hysteria is hogwash. They would ignore all this hysteria but for it being so irritating. Perhaps the key point is when the great unwashed reach a ‘tipping point’ and take on the same skeptical view. Will they revolt when the enormity of all this hits home and we have the likes of Miliband and his dark greenie army entering our houses and fining us when we don’t meet the made up enviromental targets?

    Part of me wants this hysteria to continue, for horrendous CO2 targets to be set up at Copenhagen. Then when we don’t meet the CO2 reduction targets it will allow us to finally say “look you goons, you’ve failed but we are still ok”. My worry is that somehow they do force us to cut CO2 by 80% and then they claim that it was this action that stopped us frying (when of course we will be ok anyway …in my humble opinion).


    ..And don’t forget we might need a 100% cut – The hysterics remind me of Reading the Maquis de Sade where what is supposed to be decadent and perverse ends up more and more silly and absurd.

    I’d hope a more skeptical public view is taken before 80% reductions are reached – as everyone’s noted going green is sold as light hearted fun – I see relaunched Ethical Man is now going to do really cool fun stuff like using public transport… in the States(!) – wow – I mean going green always involves a holiday – only with a carbon crunching BBC research team round you – slightly less fun struggling with shopping and screaming brats everyday in a fart infested bus tho I suggest

    And really that’s It – people seem to be total unable to link such cuts and philosophy with the reality of what it will mean for them – the best and most telling part of the whole Ethical man is his wife’s disappointed comment, whilst standing a well stocked modern kitchen, that all the silliness had reduced there carbon only 20% –

    “That’s all we’ve saved?….It just felt…It felt like more then that”

    Uh ? Bollox to the polar bears I was enjoying that. Spoil sport bastard Cake-man

    Perhaps they should try the next and the next 20% – culminating in season five and final zero % carbon goal post – Ethical man dashes himself on a cliff face for the gulls to eat


  6. Robert Wood

    “But that’s more or less speculation. There isn’t scientific documentation other than the observations,”

    I love that one. Observations are the very basis of scientific documentation. Does he mean computer-model output?

  7. YerTizz

    For all their pronouncements of gloom and doom by Phony Blair and the other Muppets at the top of the political ant-heap they cannot see there is not a shred of independent scientific evidence that AGW is a fact.


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