Jan 28, 2010

Greenpeace and the Nobel-Winning Climate Report

Considered the climate Bible by governments around the world, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is meant to be a scientific analysis of the most authoritative research.

Instead, it references literature generated by Greenpeace - an organization known more for headline-grabbing publicity stunts than sober-minded analysis. (Eight IPCC-cited Greenpeace publications are listed at the bottom of this post.)

In one section of this Nobel-winning report, climate change is linked to coral reef degradation. The sole source for this claim? A Greenpeace report titled "Pacific in Peril" (see Hoegh-Guldberg below). Here the report relies on a Greenpeace document to establish the lower-end of an estimate involving solar power plants (Aringhoff).

When discussing solar energy elsewhere, the report references two Greenpeace documents in one sentence. Here it uses a Greenpeace paper as its sole means of documenting where the "main wind-energy investments" are located globally (Wind).

On this page, the report notes that while some research suggests wind power will generate between three and five percent of global electricity by 2030, a more optimistic forecast places this number at 29%. The six times more favorable estimate comes from GWEC, 2006 - a 60-page, photo-rich report co-authored by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council. (The latter describes itself as "the global wind industry trade association.") In fairness to the IPCC, even it rejected Greenpeace's numbers, choosing instead to use 7% in its analysis.

But the fact that this report relies on Greenpeace-generated copy isn't the only reason for concern. Here is an IPCC graphic:

The idea that 2,500 "scientific expert reviewers" provided feedback about the report during its pre-publication phase sounds awesome. But many of those people aren't scientists at all. They're professional activists in the employ of environmental organizations.

The expert reviewers who had input into just one portion (Working Group III) of the IPCC report are listed in this 8-page PDF. They include three Greenpeace employees, two Friends of the Earth representatives, two Climate Action Network reps, and a person each from activist organizations WWF International, Environmental Defense, and the David Suzuki Foundation.

One of these expert reviewers is Gabriela von Goerne - who holds a PhD in geology and works as a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Germany. Von Goerne is co-author of a 2008 report that employs colourful, less-than-clinical language. Carbon capture and storage "will arrive on the battlefield far too late to help the world avoid dangerous climate change” it declares on page six.

(Incidentally, although this Greenpeace report begins with a declaration that it is "based on peer-reviewed independent scientific research," footnotes 48 and 53 cite only a non-peer-reviewed source to support statements of fact:
  • Hannegan, B, 2007. Testimony for Hearing of the Science, Technology and Innovation Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. 110th Cong., 1st Sess. 7 November 2007.
Moreover, footnote 153 cites a Greenpeace-published document authored by von Goerne herself. Greenpeace, it would appear, has a definition of "peer-reviewed" that is as elastic as the IPCC's.)

Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), The Princess Bride

As a Greenpeace employee, von Goerne gives interviews to the media. In 2007 she expressed her organization's policy preferences to MSNBC: "What we see is a diversion of money away from renewables toward CCS and coal, and that's not the way we want to see things move forward... [italics added]

A 2005 BBC article about a Swedish company exploring clean-coal technology, quotes her thus:
I don't think [this company] is taking climate issues seriously. They want to move on with coal technology, which ultimately is a dead end. The best choice would be to concentrate on renewable energies...
And in 2004, when von Goerne was part of a three-person Greenpeace delegation that testified before a committee of Australia's Parliament, her demeanor was so combative that she was admonished by the chair, who told her: "We are not having an ideological argument."

All of this suggests that von Goerne is no neutral, disinterested party. It's difficult to believe that, in her role as an IPCC reviewer, she confined herself solely to science-based objections.

Nevertheless, according to this bio, during the same time she would have been performing her reviewer role for the 2007 Nobel-winning report, von Goerne was also serving as a lead author of an IPCC special report examining the issue of carbon sequestration.

The second Greenpeace "scientific expert reviewer" is Steve Sawyer. A Greenpeace bio describes him as a "seasoned campaigner on board Greenpeace boats and a tireless lobbyist." In 2005 he spent his time "lobbying governments and corporations on energy policies."

Sawyer is a former director of Greenpeace USA, a former executive director of Greenpeace International, and has two children with former Greenpeace Antarctic campaign director Kelly Rigg. In 2007, he became the secretary general of the Global Wind Energy Council, the lobby group that produced the wildly-optimistic wind power estimate mentioned above.

Fond of dramatic statements, Sawyer has declared that "Future generations will not forgive us if we delay" emissions cuts. He has warned that Manhattan is at risk of being "under water" due to climate change. And then there's this quote from a press release issued prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq:
It's clear [the US and the UK]...intend to wage a reckless war which would make the world a much more dangerous place...If it wanted the world to be ruled by the cowboy with the biggest guns, the international community wouldn’t have created the UN...
In short, Sawyer's career has focused on political activism and environmental lobbying. How does that qualify him to be an IPCC "scientific expert reviewer"?

The third Greenpeace representative given official standing as an IPCC reviewer is Sven Teske. When a Greenpeace protest vessel shut down Europe's largest coal port in 2005, Teske was on board. Described as a renewable energy expert, he declared:
Climate change is now the single biggest threat facing our planet...Greenpeace is here today to expose Europe's dangerous addiction to coal.
Elsewhere, he insists that: "Renewable energy is the true answer" to coal's shortcomings [italics added]. According to this bio, Teske has a BSc in engineering and a masters in "wind energy technology." Curiously, a 1995 Greenpeace press release described him as a "nuclear expert" [screengrab here].

In April 2009, Teske was one of two speakers at a "Public Forum on Climate Justice" held in Ottawa, Canada. Although he resides in Amsterdam, a month later he was quoted in a Greenpeace press release calling for Canadian "political leadership" on green issues. A month after that, he called Australia "a global climate change pariah."

Teske is a co-author of a Greenpeace publication titled "New Zealand Energy Revolution: How to Prevent Climate Chaos". It features a forward by (and photograph of) Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC's chairman.

In 2006, Greenpeace released another report in conjunction with the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (a solar power lobby group). Teske is described as the "Greenpeace Co-ordinator and scenario analyst" in its credits and his name is one of two appearing at the end of that document's forward.

This attractive, 50-page publication is an extended brochure of the sort distributed by solar energy marketing departments. Although it is data and graph-intensive, it contains a grand total of four footnotes. Although it mentions external documents in passing, no list of full citations is provided.

Thus, we read on page 14 that, "According to a WHO study, as many as 160,000 people are dying each year as a result of climate change." Should we care to double-check this claim, we're on our own. [a critique of the WHO study]

As incredible as it sounds, this publication/brochure is itself cited in the Nobel-winning IPCC report as evidence that a particular statement is true. Appearing in the list below as Greenpeace 2006, it is one of two references mentioned in a single sentence, as discussed above.

Which begs an important question: how did it get into the same room with serious scholars? Why would it even be under consideration by a scientific body tasked with producing an assessment of the latest scientific research?

There appears to be an interesting chronology here. First Teske is granted "scientific expert reviewer" status by the IPCC. Second, a non-academic, non-peer-reviewed document in which he was closely involved gets added to the climate change research canon by virtue of it being cited by the Nobel-winning report.

Third, Teske co-authors a new Greenpeace report that receives an extra measure of prestige when it features a forward authored by the high-profile IPCC chairman. Fourth, in a final flourish, Teske - like his Greenpeace colleauge von Goerne - gets elevated to lead author status of yet another IPCC special report (on renewable energy) due to be published this year.

Where does Greenpeace stop and the IPCC begin? Sometimes it's difficult to tell.

  • Aringhoff, R., C. Aubrey, G. Brakmann, and S. Teske, 2003: Solar thermal power 2020, Greenpeace International/European Solar Thermal Power Industry Association, Netherlands
  • ESTIA, 2004: Exploiting the heat from the sun to combat climate change. European Solar Thermal Industry Association and Greenpeace, Solar Thermal Power 2020, UK
  • Greenpeace, 2004: http://www.greenpeace.org.ar/cop10ing/SolarGeneration.pdf accessed 05/06/07
  • Greenpeace, 2006: Solar generation. K. McDonald (ed.), Greenpeace International, Amsterdam
  • GWEC, 2006: Global wind energy outlook. Global Wind Energy Council, Bruxelles and Greenpeace, Amsterdam, September, 56 pp., accessed 05/06/07
  • Hoegh-Guldberg, O., H. Hoegh-Guldberg, H. Cesar and A. Timmerman, 2000: Pacific in peril: biological, economic and social impacts of climate change on Pacific coral reefs. Greenpeace, 72 pp.
  • Lazarus, M., L. Greber, J. Hall, C. Bartels, S. Bernow, E. Hansen, P. Raskin, and D. Von Hippel, 1993: Towards a fossil free energy future: the next energy transition. Stockholm Environment Institute, Boston Center, Boston. Greenpeace International, Amsterdam.
  • Wind Force 12, 2005: Global Wind Energy Council and Greenpeace, http://www.gwec.net/index.php?id=8, accessed 03/07/07

>> More dodgy citations in the Nobel-winning climate report (WWF-generated literature)
>> Time magazine's controversial glacier expert
>> Green time capsule: 1970 eco ideas not pretty
>> Climate psychics: 10-year-old UK snow prediction fails miserably

Jan 25, 2010

NASA's Mistaken Glacier Info

We can trust NASA, right? It puts people on the moon, sends missions to Mars, has a stellar scientific reputation, etcetera, etcetera.

The second sentence is true, but answering the question that precedes it is complicated. Whatever else might be said about NASA, in the context of the global warming debate one fact predominates: it has, inadvertently or otherwise, provided a prestigious platform to its employee, Dr. James Hansen.

(Hansen is an activist climate scientist whom many regard as the person most responsible for popularizing the idea of catastrophic global warming. See my blog post here and the second-last paragraph of this one for a taste of his controversial views and behaviour. Joanne Nova has a post about an eco-terrorist book he has endorsed. Some feel Hansen uses his association with NASA to lend his opinions an aura of unwarranted scientific certainty - thus tarnishing the reputation of his employer in the process. See here and here.)

Now NASA finds itself with egg on its face regarding the erroneous United Nations report that claimed Himalayan glaciers were at risk of disappearing by 2035. (Such an event would be significant because this could impact water supplies upon which billions of people depend.)

It turns out, NASA - the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - has a web page on which it declares that the "evidence for abrupt climate change is compelling." However, rather than making an argument based on its own, direct expertise, NASA merely repeats claims contained in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) Nobel-prize-winning report.

Up until January 19th of this year, five of the six footnotes on the NASA web page referred to various parts of that report. On January 20, however, the IPCC repudiated the 2035 estimate after media attention revealed that most glacier experts consider it absurd.

As one would hope and expect, NASA has since taken steps to correct what it tells the public regarding this matter. Rather than repeating the mistaken idea that Himalayan glaciers may "disappear altogether" within a few decades it now says: "Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa." (This neglects to mention that glaciers have been expanding and retreating for much of the planet's history, but never mind.)

There's an interesting twist, though. As the image at the top of this post reveals (click HERE for an enlargement), when NASA was passing along the earlier info to the public it shaved five years from what was already an unrealistic number.

The IPCC report used the year 2035. NASA told the little kids who visit its website that this would happen even sooner - in 2030.

Was this a careless typo - or an example of layering hype over hype? Who knows. The important point is that we're all fallible. Many of the things we believe - and pass along to others - may, in fact, be supported by meagre evidence, indeed.

My original title for this blog post was: "NASA Said It, So it Must Be True." In the grownup world, that's actually not the case.


>> James Hansen drags NASA into his personal politics
>> Scientific organizations - should we trust them?
>> Climate psychics: 10-year-old snow prediction fails miserably
>> The cult of the expert

Jan 23, 2010

More Dodgy Citations in the Nobel-Winning Climate Report

At its heart, the Himalayan glacier scandal that has recently shaken the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) involves a document created by the WWF.

The WWF is an activist organization. Much of its funding comes from public donations. The more successful the WWF is at persuading the public that there's a crisis, the more likely people are to give it money. (In North America, WWF stands for World Wildlife Fund. Elsewhere, it stands for World Wide Fund for Nature.)

Many of those associated with the WWF are lovely human beings. But that doesn't change the fact that the WWF is not a neutral, disinterested party. It has an agenda, an ax to grind, a definite point-of-view. Rather than being a scientific organization, it is a political one. In the UK, the media aptly calls the WWF a "pressure-group."

That's an Opinion - Not Evidence sound bite
Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran),
Star Trek Voyager, Season 7, "Repression"

The IPCC, on the other hand, describes itself as "a scientific body" that provides "the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change" by assessing "the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information." [bold added]

Many people would consider it improper for a science-focused organization to rely on a document created by an oil company, since the oil company can't be counted on to provide the whole story. Surely, therefore, it is equally improper for the IPCC to consider a statement to be true solely because an activist group says it is.

Surely scientists working for a scientific body - and tasked with producing a scientific assessment - would endeavor to keep their distance from political spin of all kinds.

But that is not how the IPCC behaves. AR4 is the shorthand name for the 2007 Nobel-winning IPCC report. When one types "WWF" into an AR4 search box dozens of results are returned.

For example, a WWF report is cited twice on this page as the only supporting proof of IPCC statements about coastal developments in Latin America. A WWF report is referenced twice by the IPCC's Working Group II in its concluding statements. There, the IPCC depends on the WWF to define what the global average per capita "ecological footprint" is compared to the ecological footprint of central and Eastern Europe.

Elsewhere, when discussing "mudflows and avalanches" linked to melting glaciers, the oh-so-scientifically-circumspect IPCC relies on two sources to make its point - an apparently still unpublished paper delivered to a conference five years earlier (Bhadra, 2002) and a WWF document.

Similarly, the only reason the IPCC can declare that "Changes in climate are affecting many mountain glaciers, with rapid glacier retreat documented in the Himalayas, Greenland, the European Alps, the Andes Cordillera and East Africa" is because a WWF report makes this claim.

In a section on coral reefs and mangroves, a WWF report is the IPCC's sole reason for believing that, in "the Mesoamerican reef there are up to 25 times more fish of some species on reefs close to mangrove areas than in areas where mangroves have been destroyed."

When the IPCC advises world leaders that "climate change is very likely to produce significant impacts on selected marine fish and shellfish (Baker, 2005)" it doesn't call attention to the fact that the sole authority on which this statement rests is a WWF workshop project report (see the "Baker" document below).

All told, an extensive list of documents created or co-authored by the WWF is cited by this Nobel-winning IPCC report:

  • Allianz and World Wildlife Fund, 2006: Climate change and the financial sector: an agenda for action, 59 pp. [Accessed 03.05.07: http://www.wwf.org.uk/ filelibrary/pdf/allianz_rep_0605.pdf]
  • Austin, G., A. Williams, G. Morris, R. Spalding-Feche, and R. Worthington, 2003: Employment potential of renewable energy in South Africa. Earthlife Africa, Johannesburg and World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Denmark, November, 104 pp.
  • Baker, T., 2005: Vulnerability Assessment of the North-East Atlantic Shelf Marine Ecoregion to Climate Change, Workshop Project Report, WWF, Godalming, Surrey, 79 pp.
  • Coleman, T., O. Hoegh-Guldberg, D. Karoly, I. Lowe, T. McMichael, C.D. Mitchell, G.I. Pearman, P. Scaife and J. Reynolds, 2004: Climate Change: Solutions for Australia. Australian Climate Group, 35 pp. http://www.wwf.org.au/ publications/acg_solutions.pdf
  • Dlugolecki, A. and S. Lafeld, 2005: Climate change - agenda for action: the financial sector’s perspective. Allianz Group and WWF, Munich [may be the same document as "Allianz" above, except that one is dated 2006 and the other 2005]
  • Fritsche, U.R., K. Hünecke, A. Hermann, F. Schulze, and K. Wiegmann, 2006: Sustainability standards for bioenergy. Öko-Institut e.V., Darmstadt, WWF Germany, Frankfurt am Main, November
  • Giannakopoulos, C., M. Bindi, M. Moriondo, P. LeSager and T. Tin, 2005: Climate Change Impacts in the Mediterranean Resulting from a 2oC Global Temperature Rise. WWF report, Gland Switzerland. Accessed 01.10.2006 at http://assets.panda.org/downloads/medreportfinal8july05.pdf.
  • Hansen, L.J., J.L. Biringer and J.R. Hoffmann, 2003: Buying Time: A User’s Manual for Building Resistance and Resilience to Climate Change in Natural Systems. WWF Climate Change Program, Berlin, 246 pp.
  • http://www.panda.org/about_wwf/what_we_do/climate_change/our_solutions/business_industry/climate_savers/ index.cfm
  • Lechtenbohmer, S., V. Grimm, D. Mitze, S. Thomas, M. Wissner, 2005: Target 2020: Policies and measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. WWF European Policy Office, Wuppertal
  • Malcolm, J.R., C. Liu, L. Miller, T. Allnut and L. Hansen, Eds., 2002a: Habitats at Risk: Global Warming and Species Loss in Globally Significant Terrestrial Ecosystems. WWF World Wide Fund for Nature, Gland, 40 pp.
  • Rowell, A. and P.F. Moore, 2000: Global Review of Forest Fires. WWF/IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 66 pp. http://www.iucn.org/themes/fcp/publications /files/global_review_forest_fires.pdf
  • WWF, 2004: Deforestation threatens the cradle of reef diversity. World Wide Fund for Nature, 2 December 2004. http://www.wwf.org/
  • WWF, 2004: Living Planet Report 2004. WWF- World Wide Fund for Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund), Gland, Switzerland, 44 pp.
  • WWF (World Wildlife Fund), 2005: An overview of glaciers, glacier retreat, and subsequent impacts in Nepal, India and China. World Wildlife Fund, Nepal Programme, 79 pp.
  • Zarsky, L. and K. Gallagher, 2003: Searching for the Holy Grail? Making FDI Work for Sustainable Development. Analytical Paper, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Switzerland
I've only spent a few hours tracking these down, so there may be more.

I haven't yet fully explored the Greenpeace citations, but two occur in the first paragraph on this page.

Finally, there are these authoritative sources cited by the IPCC - publications with names such as Leisure and Event Management:

  • Jones, B. and D. Scott, 2007: Implications of climate change to Ontario’s provincial parks. Leisure, (in press)
  • Jones, B., D. Scott and H. Abi Khaled, 2006: Implications of climate change for outdoor event planning: a case study of three special events in Canada’s National Capital region. Event Management, 10, 63-76
This, apparently, is how you win a Nobel prize.


>> Time magazine's controversial glacier expert
>> The big picture: the Y2K lesson
>> Climate skepticism is free speech
>> Global disaster is so 1976

Jan 21, 2010

Time Magazine's Controversial Glacier Expert

In Dec. 2009 Time magazine ran an article titled "The Tragedy of the Himalayas." The article is built around Syed Iqbal Hasnain - the glacier researcher now at the center of a controversy over how quickly the Himalayan glaciers are melting.

While the glacier story has been percolating for some time, four days ago a report in the
Times of London afforded it prominent media coverage. The Times says that a claim in the 2007 United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that Himalayan glaciers could disappear entirely by 2035 appears to rest on a single source - a 2005 document written by the environmental activist group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In turn, the WWF cites the
New Scientist, a popular magazine. The magazine, for its part, says it learned about the info during an e-mail interview with Dr. Hasnain - who has since admitted to having indulged in speculation.

We've been told ad nauseam how authoritative the IPCC reports are. We've been told they are the last word on climate matters, that they represent the consensus of the world's science community - and that they are based on rigorous, peer-reviewed research.

If this is true how could a document produced by an activist group be cited as proof of anything? Would it be remotely appropriate for the IPCC to use a document created by an oil company as the sole basis for dramatic statements about future events?

(Click image for a larger view of this IPCC document snip. Click HERE for the full document.)

And yet the IPCC did the equivalent when it declared:

  1. that Himalayan glaciers "are receding faster than in any other part of the world"
  2. that there's a "very high" likelihood of them "disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner"
  3. that there is a straightforward relationship between an increase in the global average temperature and the rate at which glaciers melt in the Himalayas [italics added]
Of these three distinct claims, the latter two are in serious dispute (see HERE, HERE and HERE). For all I know, so is the first one. Nevertheless, the IPCC endorsed all three statements because a single, non-academic, agenda-driven source said so.

The Time magazine article introduces us to Dr. Hasnain in the first paragraph. He's described as being 65 years old, light on his feet, and seemingly impervious to high altitude conditions. Next, he's quoted as saying: "These glaciers are central to the region. If we don't have snow and ice here, people will die."

Several paragraphs later, Time tells us:
What's needed is cold, hard data in a cold, hard place. That's what Syed Iqbal Hasnain is after...For years he and a small band of students have climbed Himalayan glaciers, like the East Rathong, measuring them and tracking their changes. It's hard and expensive work...but he's managed to add to the small body of scientific literature on Himalayan ice. Now he's embarking on a joint project with the eminent climatologist V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Eric Wilcox, an atmospheric scientist at NASA, to determine exactly how quickly some benchmark glaciers in the Indian Himalayas are melting. [bold added]
This all sounds impressive until we get to the next paragraph. There Dr. Hasnain implies that, regardless of what the data reveal, his mind is already made up: "'The debate is over,' he says. 'We know the science. We see the threat. The time for action is now.'"

Collecting and interpreting data is one thing. If, when, and how to respond to such data are political - not scientific - decisions. Dr. Hasnain is qualified to collect glacier data. But his opinions about how anyone should respond to that data are merely his opinions.

Bryan Walsh, the Time magazine reporter, provides no indication that he feels queasy about scientists - who are respected because of their assumed dispassionate demeanor - sharing their political opinions with the media. Elsewhere, he quotes Chewang Norphel, a 74-year-old engineer: "I have seen glaciers disappear in my own life. I don't need the scientific data. I am the scientific data."

(But if we want to make informed decisions we do need data - not just the opinion of someone who's thinks events during his own lifetime are the only relevant facts on a planet that's 4.5 billion years old.)

Nor is this the only indicator that Time magazine is, itself, pushing an agenda - that this piece was written by an advocate rather than a hard-nosed, discerning reporter. Time tells us that "the 2007 global-warming assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change judged that glaciers in the Himalayas were 'receding faster than at any other place in the world.'" [italics added]

But as the above makes clear, the IPCC did nothing of the sort. It did not examine the issue carefully, in detail, and then come to its own conclusion. Time's journalist, who evidently takes IPCC reports at face value, assumes this is what happened - and misleads his readers accordingly.

As the London Times article reveals, the IPCC report's lead author for the chapter that discusses the Himalayan glaciers, Professor Murari Lal, was in no position to make his own judgment:
Lal himself admits he knows little about glaciers. "I am not an expert on glaciers and I have not visited the region so I have to rely on credible published research. The comments in the WWF report were made by a respected Indian scientist and it was reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about," he said. [italics added]
Time magazine implies that Dr. Hasnain is a reputable scholar. The New Scientist describes him as a "
leading Indian glaciologist" who once chaired "the International Commission on Snow and Ice's working group on Himalayan glaciology." But according to the London Times, Dr. Hasnain is "a little-known Indian scientist" whose views that the glaciers might disappear by 2035 are considered "inherently ludicrous" by others in the field.

Time magazine appears to think its job is to regurgitate global-warming-activist talking points rather than produce real journalism. The article's title refers to a tragedy. It is, indeed, tragic that this article doesn't stop at quoting scientists who make political statements. It also quotes:
  • the views of two separate WWF employees
  • well-known environmental activist Lester Brown: "The melting of these glaciers is the most massive threat to food security that we have ever projected"
  • the president of the environmental-advocacy group, Natural Resources Defense Council: "This isn't an environmental problem. It's a humanitarian problem global in scope"
and relies on data supplied by the "International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, an advocacy group based in Kathmandu," and info from "a study by the French environmental group GERES."

Up against this brigade of professional activists, the article includes a single paragraph that suggests the picture might be more complicated. First we're told:
An Indian-government-backed report published in October claimed that many Indian glaciers are stable or that the rate of retreat has slowed in recent years, despite clear warming.
But the Time writer immediately undermines this statement with his follow-up sentence:
Critics pointed out that the report was not peer-reviewed in a scientific journal and had major data gaps.
Would it not be fair to mention that the WWF document on which the IPCC based its entire position was not peer-reviewed? That the New Scientist magazine from which the WWF gleaned its info wasn't either? And that the IPCC reports themselves undergo nothing like a normal peer-review process?

Why is it that Time magazine feels the need to point out that a report produced by the Indian government has its critics, yet searches for no critics to undercut the words
of the head of China's Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, who declares "The warming of the past 20 years is getting more and more intense"?

The entire Time article contains a single quote by a real person who suggests an alternative viewpoint:

"The Himalayan data just isn't there," says Richard Armstrong, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., who is skeptical that the glaciers are receding rapidly. "These glaciers are at a very high altitude, and what precipitation they get tends to fall as snow, which can add to their mass. There's a tendency to oversimplify."
But never you mind. Time magazine has a tale to tell. That tale involves dramatically elevated temperatures and dramatically melting glaciers. It involves the struggle for survival and international conflict over scarce water resources. It involves, as the last line proclaims, "safeguard[ing] tomorrow for everyone's children."

One can't let inconvenient viewpoints - no matter how rooted they, too, might be in science - get in the way of an exciting story like that.


Jan 16, 2010

Silly Earthquake Commentary

The earthquake in Haiti this week was devastating. Since then, matters have grown ever more grim.

The impulse to try to make sense of calamitous natural disasters by imbuing them with spiritual significance is an ancient one. Televangelist Pat Robertson's belief that Haitians brought the earthquake upon themselves by making a pact with the devil during the late 1700s has outraged many. His remarks to that effect start at about 32 seconds in this video:

Meanwhile, actor Danny Glover thinks the earthquake is Mother Nature's way of sending us all a message. There's a connection, he says, between the failure of the world's leaders to reach an accord at last month's Copenhagen climate summit and the fact that the capital city of one of the world's poorest nations has been reduced to rubble.

“When we see what we did at the climate summit in Copenhagen, this is the response, this is what happens, you know what I’m saying?” Glover declared in a telephone interview. Those remarks begin at about 1 minute 55 seconds:

The television station that interviewed Glover describes him as an "activist, actor and producer." Which equips him, how exactly, to comment on the reasons there's been an earthquake?

Celebrities are entitled to their opinions. The problem is that they - and often we - imagine that these opinions are more significant than those of a bus driver or a fast food attendant.

All of this brings to mind a brief exchange in the 2008 slapstick comedy Get Smart. Two villains discuss their diabolical plan to set off a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. "Still," one of them says, "it's too bad about all the dead movie stars."

"Yes," replies the other sarcastically, "what will we do without their razor-sharp political advice?"

see also: How "Nature's fury" replaced God's fury by Brendan O'Neill over at Spiked Online

Jan 15, 2010

Green Time Capsule: 1970 Eco Ideas Not Pretty

For many of us, being green means being sensible and respectful: not littering when we go hiking, participating in recycling programs, supporting anti-pollution measures.

But the green movement promotes ideas that go well beyond this. What does a peek into the archives tell us about the history of environmentalism, about early versions of the philosophy we're being encouraged to embrace?

The first issue of the Ecologist magazine appeared in July 1970 in Britain. According to its online masthead, it has been "setting the environmental agenda" ever since. The editorial in that premiere issue fills more than two pages and provides some startling insight.

When humans advanced beyond being hunter-gatherers and began farming, mining, and congregating in cities, it declares, we stopped being part of the balanced natural world and instead became ecological parasites (p. 3).

Once we learned to farm, it says, our presence on this planet became a localized "infection." The resulting growth of the human population from 800 million at the end of the 1700s to 2.4 billion in 1970, (which the editorial also blames on fossil fuels), is "cataclysmic" and "intolerable." Humanity and its activities are, therefore, a "disease [that] has spread and is still spreading."

A few paragraphs later, the editorial goes further. Humanity is "reaching the point" it insists, in which we humans, our food, and the things we manufacture "are all waste. All have long since ceased to play a useful ecological role."

That's right. Edward Goldsmith, the founder of the magazine that claims to have set the environmental agenda for the past 40 years, declares in its first issue that humans are parasites, an infection, and a disease. We're waste products that make no ecological sense. Is that what you see when you look at your family and friends?

Alas, there's more. At the top of the second page, there's a reference to "swarming human masses." Six paragraphs later we read about "the vast urban wastes that we refer to as our cities."

In fact, it's difficult not to conclude that Goldsmith is anti-human, moralistic, and authoritarian. He declares that humans no longer "fulfil their correct ecological functions" and that our population has grown too rapidly for society to maintain its "correct structure." [italics added]

According to him, government should "become a schoolmaster" to "an ever more demanding and self-indulgent electorate." The education system should provide people with "information which will enable them to fulfil their correct functions as members of their families, communities and eco-system." Such an education, he insists, should result in people who "attach greater importance to the quality of life than to increasing their standard of living." [italics added]

Goldsmith thinks it's OK to tell other people how to live. He doesn't see education as a means to help us learn how to think - he wants schools and universities to dictate what we think.

Notice that, decades before catastrophic global warming became the reason we are supposed to undertake extreme environmental measures, Goldsmith already believed that eco apocalypse was around the corner.

If humanity doesn't change its ways, he declares in the second paragraph of this 1970 editorial, we risk turning the Earth's surface "into a lifeless waste." In his view, the "population explosion" threatens us with extinction. He says the "planet's stock of minerals and fossil fuels...is already sadly depleted, and it is only a question of time before it is totally exhausted." He warms that our technological inventions are "swallowing up our biosphere" and will therefore "collapse like a house of cards."

Goldsmith insists that "a radical change in our way of looking at man's relationship to the environment" is necessary [italics added]. Moreover, he believes future population growth - as well as people's standard of living - should be regulated by the authorities:
Thus, to control population we may have to interfere with "personal liberty", while to reduce economic expansion we are forced to to curb "the march of 'progress'".
In Goldsmith's brave new world personal liberty - the ability to make one's own decisions about one's own life - gets sacrificed. Never mind that humanity has devoted hundreds of years to fighting for such liberty - first by throwing off serfdom and slavery, then by securing universal suffrage and abolishing racial segregation.

Notice that Goldsmith doesn't say we should try every other conceivable method to achieve his goals. He doesn't say that curtailing personal liberty should only be discussed if all else fails. Instead, he appears to have little aversion to regarding women's bodies as state property. (This is a funhouse reflection of the world portrayed in Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, A Handmaid's Tale. In that world, the bad guys are religious fundamentalists. In this case it's an eco-activist who thinks someone like him should decide whether or not someone like me has a baby.)

As shocking as it seems, this "Godfather of Green" exhibits far more concern for planet Earth than he does for men, women, and children. His mission is emphatically not humanitarian.

As the last line of the Ecologist's first editorial explains, Goldsmith wants to "halt the spread of the disease with which [man] is afflicting the biosphere."

Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew),
Star Trek Voyager, Season 7, "Renaissance Man"

If one follows the above-described philosophy to its logical conclusion, the only way humanity can cease to be an affront to the planet is if the 7-billion-strong human family is reduced to a hunter-gather-sized population.

This would, of course, be impossible to accomplish without interfering with the child-bearing decisions of virtually every woman in every corner of the world.

related posts:

>> Global disaster is so 1976
>> We have heard this rhetoric before

Jan 13, 2010

The Big Picture: the Y2K Lesson

I spend a lot of time doing photography. Often, my camera takes a close, intimate look at everyday objects - highlighting texture and detail.

When I'm involved in a writing project though, when I'm analyzing a subject as massive and complex as the climate change debate, I frequently employ the opposite strategy. I step back. I try to understand context and history. I strive to see the big picture.

It's easy to lose perspective when one is in the thick of things. Imagining how the situation will appear to a disinterested observer ten - or 100 - years hence is immensely helpful.

Certain ideas resurface again and again throughout human history. One of these is the notion that the world as we know it is on the brink of collapse. That the gods, Mother Nature, or our own technology, will wreak havoc - will, in essence, punish us for our transgressions.

Yesterday I read a number of news reports written prior to January 1, 2000 - the day the Y2K computer glitch was supposed to bring the world to its knees. I've long assumed that the reason we didn't encounter massive problems was because lots of time and money was devoted to preventing such an occurrence. But in recent months more than one source has argued persuasively that countries that paid almost no attention to the matter escaped similarly unscathed. [See, for example, the opening pages of Flat Earth News]

Those pre-2000 news reports are fascinating. A cover story published by Newsweek in June 1997 is titled "The Day the World Shuts Down." Readers are told that, by one estimate, half of all US businesses won't have their computer code fixed in time. Three paragraphs later, they're advised:
"It's staggering to start doing mind games on what percentage of companies will go out of business," says Gartner's Hotle. "What is the impact to the economy of 1 percent going out of business?" Or maybe more: Y2K expert Capers Jones predicts that more than 5 percent of all businesses will go bust. This would throw hundreds of thousands of people into the unemployment lines...
A bit later, the article quotes a tech expert saying there are two kinds of people: "Those who aren't working on [fixing the Y2K bug] and aren't worried, and those who are working on it and are terrified."

Another Newsweek story published in late 1998, tells of a San Diego doctor who quit his practice, moved his family to a farm, and began lecturing about Y2K preparedness because he was convinced he could "save more lives getting people to make contingency plans."

Yet another news account tells readers that the "chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities in New York, puts the odds of a [Y2K-triggered] global recession at 70 percent."

None of the really bad things happened, of course. Not even close. The power grid in big cities did not fail. Nor did large numbers of businesses. Nor did the economy. No matter how certain the well-educated consultants, economists, technology experts, and doctors were in their opinions - no matter how persuasive they sounded when quoted by the media - their fears were overblown by a wide, wide margin.

It's important to recognize that not everyone got caught up in Y2K end-of-the-world thinking. In May 1999 Newsweek published an admirable essay by technology expert Danny Hillis who declared: "I have come to believe that the Y2K apocalypse is a myth." He felt "like a traitor," he said, "for breaking ranks with my fellow computer experts and admitting what I really think." In his view, Y2K would cause little more than inconvenience.

Ten years later it's clear that Hillis' sober-minded, quiet assessment was the correct one, that he was the voice of reason in a roomful of alarmists. He ended his essay with an observation that's highly applicable today, when we're being encouraged to believe in an impending global-warming-induced catastrophe:
There are no real experts, only people who understand their own little pieces of the puzzle.

Jan 11, 2010

Climate Skepticism is Free Speech

I've been researching the global warming debate since April 2009. I'm still fitting together the pieces of this multi-dimensional puzzle. The big picture hasn't yet come fully into focus. But I am now certain of one thing. Climate change skepticism is free speech.

Some people disagree with climate skepticism. Good for them. But that doesn't give them the right to deny their friends, neighbors, or fellow citizens the opportunity to hear about it.

In democracies, various parties present their ideas and the public gets to choose from amongst competing analyses and visions. At election time, all who meet minimum criteria are allowed to participate - to argue their case before the electorate.

We'd take a dim view of any candidate who insisted that one or more of his opponents should be prevented from running for office.

But that is precisely the position of many who promote global warming theory. Rather than giving skeptics their turn at the podium, such people want to banish skeptics from the candidate's list. They say skeptics aren't simply mistaken but are equivalent to the most reprehensible amongst us - Holocaust deniers.

[Click for larger version of this screengrab of the first part of a
Boston Globe column by Ellen Goodman, dated Feb. 9, 2007.
The column no longer appears to be available online.]

They say skeptics are mentally ill. They call them "climate killers" and "the planet's worst enemies."

They describe skeptics as "heinous climate villains" and "bastards who are responsible for subverting public understanding of climate change."

They strive hard, in other words, to disqualify skeptics from the race itself - to convince the world that skeptics are too evil or unstable to even be permitted to take part.

Global warming proponents are, therefore, trying to cheat. Rather than competing against the skeptics on an even playing field, out in the open, so that the public can make its own decisions, they insist theirs is the only perspective that deserves to be heard, that anything else amounts to "subverting public understanding" - an Orwellian turn of phrase if ever there was one.

Not everyone who believes in global warming acts this way. But those who are appalled by such behavior need to speak up. Every time we hear the words "denier" or "denialist" in a climate context we need to distance ourselves from such pejorative, silencing language.

We need to declare, loudly, that all points of view have a right to be heard - that climate change skepticism is, in fact, free speech.


>> Why the Munk Debate proves the debate isn't over
>> If we don't agree, you're crazy
>> Bullies need not apply
>> Al Gore thinks your brain is too primitive

Jan 7, 2010

Climate Psychics: 10-Year-Old Snow Prediction Fails Miserably

A decade ago, a scientist with the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia said snow would be rare in Britain within a few years. But plenty has fallen in 9 of the last 10.

On New Year's Eve, a local radio station aired a brief report about an alleged psychic making her 2010 predictions. The report didn't mention that psychic abilities have never been scientifically confirmed. Nor did it tell us what percentage of the psychic's predictions from last year had actually come true.

Although it would have been straightforward to check what the psychic said a year earlier, the media doesn't hold psychics accountable. Likewise, no one holds the media accountable for its false predictions.

In other words, there is no penalty for getting it wrong. There is no downside to behaving - despite all evidence to the contrary - as though it's possible to predict the future. A newspaper may publish melodramatic headlines. It may alarm readers with dire, confidently-delivered prognostications. But in a month, a year, a decade (or three) when it becomes clear the story was nonsense, no one gets pelted with limp noodles. Nor do writers, editors, producers, and broadcasters publish year-end roundups that let you know just how mistaken they've all been.

Given this state of affairs, it's sensible and appropriate to regard media scare stories with a healthy measure of skepticism. Some people, no doubt, read this Independent story in early 2000 (the headline of which appears above) and felt melancholy afterward.

Although a decade old, it reads much like the average "environment" news story today. The Independent told its readers:
  • "snow is starting to disappear from our lives"
  • "Sledges, snowmen, snowballs...are all a rapidly diminishing part of Britain's culture"
  • "within a few years winter snowfall will become 'a very rare and exciting event'"
  • "Children just aren't going to know what snow is"
  • "Heavy snow will return occasionally...but when it does we will be unprepared...Snow will probably cause chaos in 20 years time"
  • "chances are certainly now stacked against the sort of heavy snowfall in cities that inspired Impressionist painters" [bold added]
Readers were assured the future could be accurately predicted because "Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia" said so.

They were told something important was happening because Britain's biggest toyshop "had no sledges on display in its Regent Street store" for the first time.

They were invited to feel alarmed because a spokesman for the Fenland Indoor Speed Skating Club lamented that winters weren't as cold as they used to be when he was a boy (his current age was not disclosed).

They were advised to be concerned because a second scientist, "David Parker, at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research" had mused (according to the journalistic paraphrase) that "ultimately, British children [will] have only virtual experience of snow." [bold added]

Perhaps most persuasive of all, readers were told the lack of snow in the first two months of the year 2000 was "the continuation of a trend that has been increasingly visible in the past 15 years."

The notion that a complex, dynamic system like the Earth's climate might experience perfectly natural cycles lasting decades - or even centuries - went unmentioned. Instead, readers were told that "Global warming...is now accepted as a reality by the international community."

Perhaps the international community would care to explain a few things. British citizens are currently in some distress due to heavy snowfalls. Hundreds of them have been rescued from their stranded automobiles by the armed forces. Their children attend the thousands of schools that have been shuttered. Still others have had their cancer treatments and operations postponed.

No doubt large numbers of these people would welcome an explanation from the CRU's Dr. David Viner who advised, in 2000, that within a few years snow would become very rare.

In actual fact, Britain has experienced a great deal of snow since then. A mere two weeks after the Independent published this article, London's "Luton Airport had to be closed, as snow equipment was unable to clear the runways sufficiently for aircraft to take-off...[Meanwhile] snowdrifts up to 60cm were reported...with many cars being abandoned."

According to the website of Dr. Richard Wild (who recently completed a PhD on British snowstorms and recorded these events as they occurred), by December 2000 the country was experiencing the most "widespread snowfall over the UK since February 1996."

Dr. Wild reports a "total of 12 heavy snowfall days" in Britain in 2001, which he describes as "average". (Elsewhere, he says nine is also average.)

Although he says "virtually no heavy snowfalls" fell in 2002, in January 2003 "snow caused havoc in many parts of the UK," spurring the government to signal its intention to introduce "new legislation to force councils to grit roads." In December of that year, "Heavy snowfall brought New Year['s] Eve misery to large parts of Northern England and Scotland."

In January 2004, a snowstorm interrupted school for 70,000 Scottish children and "a 74-year-old man from Berwickshire died due to having a heart attack trying to free his wife’s car from a snowdrift." In late February, Dr. Wild reports that "many schools across Scotland, SW England, N England, N Ireland and Wales...closed, with numerous roads remaining blocked with snow" and that "a football match...[had] to be called off." In November, Middleton, Derbyshire, received 13 cm of snow - the "largest single fall of snow in November since records began in the year 1977."

Dr. Wild sums up the year 2005 by observing that it "saw 25 heavy snowfall days, the highest (equal with the year 1876) since the heavy snowfall research began in the year 1861." (See details here, here, here, and here.) [bold added]

In other words, during the five years immediately following the Independent's claim that snow was a "rapidly diminishing part" of British culture, snowfall was minimal in only one year (2002). Not only was there plenty of the white stuff during the remaining four, but 2005 was one for the history books.

So how did the next five years fare?
  • in late February and early March of 2006, "Heavy snow showers affected many districts of the UK" (East Anglia was among the areas hardest hit). A few weeks later, "Heavy snow fell across N England, N Wales and S Scotland". [more]
  • in April 2006 "More than 13cm of snow fell in parts of Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex, Hampshire and southern London"
  • "large parts of Southern England, the Midlands and Wales" experienced "heavy snowfall" in February 2007 [more, more, more]
  • in January 2008 Britain experienced "more snow chaos"
  • later that year, thousands lost power when London experienced its first October snow in 74 years
  • in November 2008, heavy snow was a problem in large areas of Britain
  • in December 2008, snow closed "hundreds of schools" and caused traffic difficulties
  • during the first 13 days of February 2009, Britain experienced a prolonged period of snowfall in which authorities warned they were running out of road grit [more, more, more, more]
  • in March 2009, motorists "were stranded after worse-than-expected snowfalls caused blizzard-like conditions in parts of England"
By mid-December 2009 parts of Britain were in the grips of snowy, cold, blizzard-like conditions that have yet to fully abate. The media is at last beginning to acknowledge a well-known, but under-reported fact: cold weather is far deadlier than hot weather. Britain's elderly population and poorest families are especially vulnerable.

It turns out that Dr. Viner of the East Anglia Climate Research Unit was flat-out wrong when he told the Independent in early 2000 that within a few years snow would be rare. In fact, snow has been abundant during every year but one since then.

Ten years on, it's clear the journalist and editors involved in this "news" story might as well have consulted a psychic. A crystal ball could hardly have been further off the mark.

Near the bottom of this Daily Mail article (which appeared three days after I posted here), there's a photo of Dr. Viner. The third-last and second-last paragraphs from this article read as follows:

Now the head of a British Council programme with an annual £10 million budget that raises awareness of global warming among young people abroad, Dr Viner last week said he still stood by that prediction: ‘We’ve had three weeks of relatively cold weather, and that doesn’t change anything.

'This winter is just a little cooler than average, and I still think that snow will become an increasingly rare event.’ [bold added]

So ten years ago Dr. Viner made a short-term prediction. This prediction was contradicted by shovelfuls of frosty white evidence in nine of the ten years that immediately followed. Ignoring these facts, Dr. Viner declares that three weeks of cold weather don't mean anything and that he still believes his prediction is accurate.

As I note at the beginning of this post, there is no downside to making false predictions. We all need to remember this the next time we hear that "science says" that X or Y is going to happen.