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Fox News gets it wrong

Filed under: — Ray Bradley @ 18 December 2004

In a December 17th Fox News story (See full report here) Steven Milloy comments on a lecture by Lonnie Thompson at the Annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. He uses a common ploy of truncating what Thompson said, to ensure that a quotation fits with his message. According to Milloy, Thompson said, “Any prudent person would agree that we don’t yet understand the complexities with the climate system.” But what he actually said was “Any prudent person would agree that we don’t yet understand the complexities with the climate system and, since we don’t, we should be extremely cautious in how much we ‘tweak’ the system.” (see full press release here). Such manipulations are designed so that Milloy can’t be accused of misquoting, but clearly, he completely contorts Thompson’s point. Milloy also misunderstands the science.

In his talk, Thompson described two samples of moss that are 5,000 and 50,000 years old, respectively (based on radiocarbon dating). These samples have been revealed as the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru receded over the last few years. Milloy argues that “the plant find is a strong indication that, thousands of years ago, the high Andean climate must have been warm enough to cause the glacier to be recessed and to allow for the plants to grow in the first place…”. That is correct. But he goes on to say, “So if natural forces caused those climate changes, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that perhaps natural forces might also be largely responsible for whatever climate changes may be occurring now?” Unfortunately, that isn’t reasonable.

Milloy makes the common mistake of confusing (1) different factors that cause climates to change (see forcings) and (2) the rates of climate change. Warming in the early to mid-Holocene (the post-glacial period that covers the last 12,500 years) resulted from changes in the earth’s orbit (as described by Milankovitch). In the western United States, many glaciers disappeared altogether at this time, only to re-form around 4500 years ago. The temperatures slowly changed as the earth’s position altered, in relation to the sun, causing the distribution of energy received on earth to change geographically and seasonally. The changes observed by Thompson (since he started studying the Quelccaya ice cap in the late 1970s) have been extremely large and rapid; in fact, the rate of ice recession has increased over time. Thompson noted in a 2003 peer-reviewed article, that “The rate of retreat from 1983 to 1991 was three times that measured from 1963 to 1983.” (Climatic Change, vol 59, p.137-159). Evidence of glacier retreat has been observed in almost all parts of the world in the 20th century, and the rate of retreat has also increased in the latter half of the 20th century. This has nothing to do with the slow changes that result from orbital forcing. It is a consequence of rapid worldwide global warming, the rate of which has increased in the last 20 years. As discussed elsewhere in these pages, there is strong evidence that anthropogenic effects are largely responsible for this warming.

On a more general point, uninformed commentators often refer to periods in the past when it was warmer, then claim that this somehow “proves” that contemporary changes are “normal”. But there were countless warm periods in the past that resulted from quite different conditions than those prevailing today (see this link on the Medieval period, or this link on the “mid-Holocene” period). In some cases, these were due to a different orbital configuration, or different levels of greenhouse gases, or even different world geography (lower mountain ranges, ocean seaways altered, no polar ice sheets etc). What makes the recent changes stand out is that they are extremely rapid and global in extent. Another error commonly made is to pick one spot on earth where it may have been warm, and claim that this demonstrates that the earth as a whole was warm at that time. This is also incorrect. If it was warmer in southern Greenland when the Vikings arrived, this tells us nothing about conditions in the Pacific, or Eurasia or South America. To get a true picture of whether there was “global warming” at that time requires, not surprisingly, a set of data from many places around the globe (see this discussion on one of the popular “myths” regarding past climate history). Thus, Thompson’s observation about the retreat of the Quelccaya ice cap would be interesting, but not that important, if it was the only data point we had. But it isn’t — we observe similar things happening in virtually all mountainous regions of the world.


20 Responses to “Fox News gets it wrong”

  1. 1
    caerbannog says:

    Hmmmm… maybe it’s time for a talkorigins.org-style “quote-mine” project along the lines
    of http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/quotes/mine/project.html

  2. 2
    geniusNZ says:

    >Such manipulations are designed so that Milloy canâ??t be accused of misquoting

    I think surely you can accuse him of misquoting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misquote) – we know that you can remove key words from sentance to give it a different meaning. (ie it is designed to – but it should fail). One assumes when one sees a quote that the person quoting has seen the wider context and found the quote to be representative of that wider context.

    Putting on a more charitable hat however Thompson is selling risk adversion (there is some indivation of trouble – we dont know how bad therefore we should be careful) Miloy seems to be selling policy conservatism (unless you can prove it is badly broken don’t try to fix it).

    So they can see the same evidence and paint it differently – however in this case miloy is obviously trying to paint thompson as taking a position he did not take – which is the former (misquoting) as opposed to the latter.

  3. 3
    dave says:

    Nice post. All these natural variability “arguments” have the same structure.

    1. there is natural variability of climate
    2. the climate is changing now
    3. therefore, the climate is changing now due to natural variability

    You don’t have to be logician to catch the fallacies in this one. The issue, as your post states, revolves around what is forcing the climate and how fast that is happening. Nobody using this argument seems to be able to provide an alternative hypothesis about what is forcing the climate.

    Here’s the common variation on the argument, since the climate is warming.

    1. there were “naturally occurring” warm periods in the past (eg. Medieval Warm Period)
    2. we are in a warm period now
    3. therefore, we are in “naturally occurring” warm period

    Of course, the problem is the unwillingness to acknowledge that human activity altering the carbon cycle (emissions, landuse) is the forcing involved now. The position of these vested interests seems to boil down to “stuff happens”.

    Also, I read your forcing post (Nov 28). I have always thought that part of the confusion is that CO2 increases are both a forcing (as an input) and also a feedback (as a function of the climate itself). I am assuming that anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels and clearing land for agriculture constitute things that are outside Earth’s natural climate system. I think that is a reasonable assumption. What do you think?

    In any case, good luck convincing Fox News.

  4. 4
    Jim Norton says:

    Not sure what kind of journalist would use such a ploy. Better to call it a propoganda ploy.

  5. 5
    Mike Hopkins says:

    If any climate-related version of the Quote Mine Project is done, be sure put a note in the talk.origins newsgroup. :-)

    For those who don’t know, the QMP is an effort to look up many of the evolution quotes used by the creationists who have a habit of providing quote after quote to “prove” their case. These quotes are often out-of-context, out-of-date, misrepresent who the author is, etc., etc. Of course, the evolution deniers are not the only pseudoscientists who love to argue via quotes and misquotes.

    By the Way, RealClimate as of two days ago, listed in the Critical Thought links of the Talk.Origins Archive which is where the QMP is hosted.


    Anti-spam: Replace “user” with “harlequin2″

  6. 6
    tom says:

    The U.S. at Buenos Aires: From the New York Times:

    “The United States also stood virtually alone in challenging the scientific assumptions underlying the Kyoto Protocol. “Science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided,” Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for global affairs and the leader of the American delegation, said in her remarks to the conference.”

    I think that the above would be a fitting post from one of the experts on this site. This sounds like a formula for never doing anything, regardless of the evidence. While this statement may be true, it may be true simply because the concept “dangerous” is not a scientific question. Further, it if could be proven that all those French people died because of global warming, wouldn’t most people agree that the dangerous level of warming has been reached? The statement by Dobriansky sounds like very clever sophistry to me. Every time the climate experts knock down a new fallacy put up by the global warming naysaysers, the argument is changed. Bottom line is that they just don’t want to do anything come, literally, hell or high water.

    BTW, has anyone else observed that this comment box is rather difficult to deal with? Words at the end of each line have to be typed blindly.

  7. 7
    ml says:

    Isn’t the deep question, “Is there dangerous warming and what should we do about it?” One of the the denialists’ false
    dichotomies seems to be:”man-made dangerous bad, natural dangerous – no action required.” I for one would want to assess
    mitigation options even if it were all “natural”.

  8. 8
    Aaron says:

    “I for one would want to assess mitigation options even if it were all ‘natural’.”

    To be fair, if the current warming seemed to be more natural than artificial, the effectiveness of various mitigation options might be assessed differently — for example, actively scrubbing greenhouse gasses from the air might be deemed more effective than passively reducing emissions.

    Oy vey… that sounded really polysyllabic. I apologize for posting at 2am. :)

  9. 9
    GeniusNZ says:

    Excellent point ml. And it is not as if they (the denialists) are suggesting an alternative solution.

    Aaron –
    I think methods for dealing with the problem should be independant of causes. I.e if actively scrubbing them from the atmosphere works and is an efficient allocation of resources then we should do it even if it is entirely the result of burning. Of course it would point out the total return we can get from certain methods, but it seems to me that requires more acurate analysis anyway.

  10. 10
    Aaron says:

    “I.e. if actively scrubbing them from the atmosphere works and is an efficient allocation of resources then we should do it even if it is entirely the result of burning.”

    I agree — just sayin’ that if human greenhouse gas emissions weren’t contributing much to global warming, cutting them wouldn’t be much of a help. Inversely, if human greenhouse emissions bore most of the responsibility for the current warming, cutting them would be a tremendous help.

  11. 11
    Walt says:

    As a journalist, I want to point out that Milloy is a columnist and PR man — not a journalist, as another poster called him — and the column referred to in this post is not a “news story.” It is a commentary, like what appears on the op-ed pages of newspapers, and the column appears in the “opinion” section of the site. That said, the column he writes appears to be the only science coverage offered at the FoxNews.com, which doesn’t strike me as very “fair and balanced.”

  12. 12
    Jake says:

    I’m curious, if the mid-holocene event resulted from solar activity, rather than orbital effects, would the resolution of our paleoclimate data really be high enough to determine whether or not these changes were as rapid as the changes we’re seeing today?
    If not, then isn’t it possible that some of the observed recent warming is the result of solar activity?
    A more reasonable natural variability/forcing argument might go something like this:
    1) There is natural variability of climate due to solar activity
    2) Climate is changing now
    3) Forcing can result in climate change, but the response of the C cycle to forcing is poorly understood
    4) Forcing is happening now
    5) Forcing and/or solar activity could be to blame for current warming trends
    Is this unreasonable?

  13. 13
    Jason Stokes says:

    As a journalist, I want to point out that Milloy is a columnist and PR man — not a journalist, as another poster called him — and the column referred to in this post is not a “news story.” It is a commentary, like what appears on the op-ed pages of newspapers, and the column appears in the “opinion” section of the site.

    Fine, but as a regular watcher/reader of Fox News, I know that Fox News makes no serious distinction between journalism, opinion and commentary. It’s all propaganda to them.

  14. 14
    Mark Lynas says:

    I loathe Fox News (indeed I once inadvisedly appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to defend global warming and was cross-examined on whether or not I was a Christian, as if this somehow settled the argument) but I wonder whether there is a discrepancy here? According to the post on the mid-Holocene Optimum, it was likely restricted to the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, and the tropics may well have been colder. Surely this is contradicted by Thompson finding evidence that tropical Andean glaciers were also smaller then? I know this is only one piece of evidence, which hardly counts as a statistically-valid sample, but still – does anyone know of any other work on this?

    Thanks – RealClimate.org is a fantastic, and must-read site…

    Mark

    Response: Thanks for your comment. The paleoclimate evidence detailing climate changes during the mid-Holocene is complex. In the Kitoh and Murakami (2002) paper referred to in our mid-Holocene Optimum post, the authors note that that, while there is evidence of cooler tropical sea surface temperatures (SST) in many locations, the temperature changes are far from uniform. For example, warmer SSTs are evident in the Great Barrier Reef, while the tropical Atlantic appears to have been cooler than present day. Evidence from glacial advance/retreat (e.g. the evidence from tropical Andean glaciers you cite above) is often difficult to interpret, because glacial mass balance represents in general a subtle competition between the influences of ablation (determined by changes in temperature thresholds reached) and accumulation (determined by changes in humidity and precipitation). A good discussion of this can be found in the review paper by Jones and Mann (2004–see section 2.9 therein)[Jones, P.D., Mann, M.E., Climate Over Past Millennia, Reviews of Geophysics, 42, RG2002, doi: 10.1029/2003RG000143, 2004]. Relevant to this issue, there is currently a debate among paleoclimatologists with respect to the following condundrum: A dramatic recession of the more-than-11,000 year old ice cap of Mt. Kilimanjaro in tropical East Africa is taking place despite any clear evidence that temperatures have exceeded the melting threshold (one explanation is that the changes are largely associated with a drying atmosphere in the region; the most recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that melting may indeed now be underway).

  15. 15
    Pete Myers says:

    Milloy masquerades as a journalist, but he first broke into public view while working for a front organization cobbled together by Philip Morris and the Chemical Manufacturers Association. You can find more about his history as it was revealed by research into documents released by Philip Morris by visiting this analysis at http://www.OurStolenFuture.org. The analysis summarizes a peer-reviewed paper published by EK Ong and SA Glantz in the American Journal of Public Health and provides additional links, including to the original paper. The techniques used by the tobacco industry to confuse public debate about tobacco science, well-documented in the materials analyzed by Ong and Glantz, closely resemble methods used by some of the people working to obfuscate climate science. Understanding where these methods come from and how much thought and planning lies behind them may help for more effective efforts to combat them on climate science.

  16. 16
    michael pettengill says:

    I really miss the best “news” on Fox TV: Chris Carter’s The X Files.

    Facts, either news items or current science topics, were given the classic scifi what-if and then spun into an entertaining story using scientific inquiry to drive the story line. We had the skeptic scientist and the intuitive believer questioning each other without fighting and without disrespect or insult.

    (One can easily argue that Gene Roddenberry and others were much better at the science bit, but those shows weren’t on Fox.)

  17. 17

    Blogging the climate
    RealClimate.org defines its purpose this way: RealClimate is a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists. We aim to provide a quick response to developing stories and provide the context …

  18. 18
    Jim Norton says:

    I have posted a responce to Milloy’s latest commentary, which also involves some questionable quoting, on my web site:

    http://info-pollution.com/dangerously.htm

  19. 19

    Milloy Blames Environmentalists First
    Steven Milloy, the self-proclaimed critic of

  20. 20
    Jim Norton says:

    As a follow up to posts 18 and 19, Milloy is now basically claiming that he was mislead (on his web page, under news for January 7):

    Enviros maintain tsunami-global warming linked: The British newspaper The Independent apparently erred in linking global warming-related quotes from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth spokesmen with the recent tsunamis. Enviros, nevertheless, keep trying to make such a linkage.


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