A recent movie, ‘Thank You for Smoking‘, amusingly highlighted the lengths that PR reps for the tobacco companies would go to distort the public discourse on the health effects of smoking. Lest you thought that was of merely historical relevance, we would like to draw your attention to two of the funniest videos around. Lifting a page straight out of the Nick Naylor playbook, the CEI (an industry-funded lobby group) has launched a new ad campaign that is supposed to counteract all those pesky scientific facts about global warming.
The first ad (both available here) deserves to become a classic of the genre. It contains the immortal lines ‘CO2: they call it pollution, we call it Life!’ – it is beyond parody and without content – and so you should definitely see it. The second ad has a little more substance – but is as misleading as you might expect.
They only discuss one scientific point which relates to whether ‘glaciers are melting’. Unsurprisingly, they don’t discuss the dramatic evidence of tropical glacier melting, the almost worldwide retreat of other mountain glaciers, the rapid acceleration of fringing glaciers on Greenland or the Antarctic peninsula. Neither do they mention that the preliminary gravity measurements imply that both Antarctica and Greenland appear to be net contributors to sea level rise. No. The only studies that they highlight are ones which demonstrate that in the interior of the ice shelves, there is actually some accumulation of snow (which clearly balances some of the fringing loss). These studies actually confirm climate model predictions that as the poles warm, water vapour there will increase and so, in general, will precipitation. In the extreme environments of the central ice sheets, it will not get warm enough to rain and so snowfall and accumulation are expected to increase.
To be sure, calculating the net balance of the ice sheets is difficult and given the uncertainties of different techniques (altimeters, gravity measurements, interferometers etc.) and the shortness of many of the records, it’s difficult to make very definitive statements about the present day situation. Our sense of the data is that Greenland is probably losing mass – the rapid wasting around the edge is larger than the accumulation in the center, whereas Antarctica in toto is a more difficult call.
However, one should step back a bit from what has been going on in recent years, and consider what is likely to happen in the future. The last time the planet may have been a degree or so warmer than today (about 120,000 years ago), sea level was around 5 to 6 meters higher – and that water must have come from Greenland and (probably) the West Antarctic ice sheet. With projected future rises in emissions of ‘Life!‘ (though we like to call it ‘carbon dioxide’), these sorts of temperature rises are clearly possible, and the danger that would eventually pose to the continued existence of some ice sheets is clearly cause for concern.
To summarise, while CEI clearly demonstrate that their job (paraphrasing Nick Naylor again) “requires a certain …. moral flexibility”, the rest of us can be grateful for the amusement they appear to have accidentally bestowed on the world.
Update 21 May: Engineering Professor Curt Davis says TV Spots are Misrepresenting His Research