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Journalistic whiplash

Filed under: — gavin @ 29 July 2008 - (Español)

Andy Revkin has a good article in the Science Times today on the problem of journalistic whiplash in climate change (also discussed here). This phenomena occurs with the more uncertain parts of a science that are being actively researched and where the full story is only slowly coming together. In such cases, new papers often appear in high profile journals (because they meet the ‘of general interest’ test), and are often parsed rather simplistically to see what side of the fence they fall – are they pro or anti? This leads to wide press interest, but rather shallow coverage, and leaves casual readers with ‘whiplash’ from the ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ messages every other week.

This is a familiar pattern in health reporting (is coffee good for you/bad for you etc.), but in more recent times has started happening in climate science too. Examples picked out in the article include the hurricanes/global warming connection and the state of Greenland’s ice sheet. In both cases, many new pieces of evidence, new theories and new models are being thrown into the pot, but full syntheses of the problems remain elusive. Scientists are of course interested in knowing how it all fits together (and it usually does), but the public – unaware of what is agreed on and what is uncertain – see only the ping-pong across the media. Unlike more mature parts of the science (such as the radiative effect of greenhouse gases), there is much less context available to relate to these new pieces of science.

This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything. Ironically, just as climate change has made it on to the front page because the weight of evidence supporting a human role in recent warming, increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it? Your thoughts are most welcome!

287 Responses to “Journalistic whiplash”

  1. 251

    Hank (248): “If they (scientists) had wanted to be in PR or sales they’d be there”. There probably are many scientists who would love to combine science and outreach/communication. But in the current academic system, esp for young scientists (without tenure), combining these is very difficult. Whereas among young scientists, the desire to also engage in public outreach is probably the greatest. That’s a big loss of potential.

  2. 252
    Hank Roberts says:

    Bart, Tenney said ‘tenured’ not ‘young … without tenure’ — different!

  3. 253
    Rod B says:

    I think Hank (248) explains the dilemma very well. (Truth in advertising: I’m a sceptic but trying to put myself in the AGW camp to comment helpfully.) It is the scientists who, seemingly, likely will have to carry the bulk of the water in convincing the public. The problem is that they are (usually) not equipped with the appropriate “skills” for that effort, don’t particularly want to learn those skills, and, if they did try, would not be very good at it. Ever try to turn a guy into a master electrician who hates electricity and construction work? Maybe more to the point, some of the skills necessary in what I’ll loosely call PR is just not in the psyche nor the desire of many scientists. So putting the onus on the scientists is unworkable; and criticizing them or holding them somehow accountable is silly and simple buck passing.

    If you can find the rare scientists who are also outstanding speakers, debaters, convincers, collar him/her and quickly double, at least, the remuneration. But, to beat the odds to get anywhere, the burden needs to be placed on a “public interface” skill set. Granted, they would have a difficult time learning the right level of climate science. But marketing guys do that all the time. Hank is right-on in his post. (More erudite than mine, I might add.)

  4. 254
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Just as this site is and should be apolitical, my feeling is that good journalism should try to stay neutral and report from personal observation and discussion with authorities in their respective field.

    I had the opportunity to attend a talk at NYU’s Lifelong Learning Institute a few years ago, given by Andy Revkin and he did a fine job of relating his experiences in the Arctic and on what’s happening to Greenland’s ice cover and floating arctic ice sheets without revealing which ‘side’ he favors. I believe this was proper, and adds to the overall credibility of responsible reporting.

    We had a wide ranging Q and A afterward, the subject of sea level rise was included. I raised the possibility of non-linear or exponential rise and there was general consensus that this is indeed possibe.

  5. 255
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #246: Andy, that’s an odd reading of what Trenberth said. After noting that sediment accumulation can compensate for a small amount of sea level rise he wrote, “I suspect that projected rates of sea level rise are too great and the risk is that the natural processes can not keep up, or even if they do they become episodically overwhelmed by a storm surge.”

    One aspect of sea level rise I have never seen any media coverage on is the impact on fisheries of the inundation of existing estuarine ecosystems. Will even a few feet of sea level rise terminate estuary productivity, will that have a huge negative impact on fisheries, and will the re-establishment of these ecosystems be more a matter of centuries than decades? I suspect the answer to all of those questions may be yes. Please ask your experts about it.

  6. 256
    Hank Roberts says:

    Well worth reading:
    Thoughts and notes on science

    “I’ll be trying what seems to be an unusual approach in blogs — writing to be inclusive of students in middle school and jr. high, as well as teachers and parents (whether for their own information or to help their children). To that end, comments will have to pass a stricter standard than I’d apply for an all-comers site. It shouldn’t be onerous …”

  7. 257
    Jim Eaton says:

    The Sacramento Bee today (Sunday) published a fascinating article by Pulitzer Prize award winning writer Tom Knudson entitled, “Sierra warming: Climate change puts heat on high country.”

    Captcha: sent always (this site may require you to subscribe — if so, I can email the article to those interested)

    Here are a few introductory paragraphs:

    “No longer is climate change a distant drama of shrinking polar ice caps. As year-round ice fades from the saw-toothed summits of the Sierra Nevada, as Klieforth and others watch a world change in their lifetimes, it’s clear an unwelcome reality is at our doorstep: Global warming is local warming.

    “Just as rising worldwide temperatures are sowing problems in the far north and parts of Antarctica, so, too, are they bringing big changes to our own northern exposure in the Sierra and other mountain regions.

    “You can see it in the dead rust-red pines west of Yosemite National Park, the fading easel of wildflowers near Carson Pass south of Lake Tahoe and the parched bare banks of lakes and reservoirs. You can smell it in the acrid ash-gray smoke from a siege of early-season wildfires that has choked much of the region for weeks on end.

    “You can hear it in the quiet murmur of small streams that once rushed noisily downhill in July; in the whoosh of cars over Tioga Pass after Thanksgiving – a time when the white-knuckle road crossing, the highest in California, was always closed by snow prior to 1975; and in the voices and observations of scientists, resource managers and mountain residents.”

  8. 258
    Paul Melanson says:

    RE: #235

    “The false positive on AGW (mitigating it when it is not happening) would be a great economic and environmental bonanza…”

    Since the above statement conflicts with the position of most peer-reviewed economists, I curious why you seem to have so much faith in climate science and so little faith in economic science.

    What an outrageous statement! You might think this is true, but I would like to see the evidence. Citations please!

  9. 259
    Andrew says:

    Re: 255 “One aspect of sea level rise I have never seen any media coverage on is the impact on fisheries of the inundation of existing estuarine ecosystems. Will even a few feet of sea level rise terminate estuary productivity, will that have a huge negative impact on fisheries, and will the re-establishment of these ecosystems be more a matter of centuries than decades? I suspect the answer to all of those questions may be yes. Please ask your experts about it.”

    I think this is a worthy topic as one of the more certain aspects of AGW is that the rate of sea level rise has increased as the result of thermal expansion and is undoubtedly going to increase unless AGW somehow stops. You can argue about what the ice is going to do, but there is no arguement that water expands as it heats.

    I suggest looking over the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana’s web page to get an idea of how big a problem this is and could be for marsh and estuary loss associated with sea level rise. Be warned that the cause of Louisiana’s marsh and estuary loss is complex and is much debated. There is no question that sea level is and will continue to exacerbate the problem and at some point will completely overwhelm other causes of coastal land loss.


    For good scientific debate, the best journals are Estuaries and the Journal of Coastal Research. These are widely available in university libraries.

  10. 260
    Pat McLean says:


    Curiosity about Bangladesh’s vulnerability lead me to visit the Sundarbans last year on a trip that after several days meandering through the waterways of this forested jungle lead us out onto the Bay of Bengal. Expecting a vast expanse of mudflats from the billion tons of sediment coming each year down the Ganges, Brahmanputra and Meghna (GBM) rivers I was very surprised to find a sandy, gently sloping, swimable beach. Our guide pointed out where a island had been visible until a year or two before, and on the distant points dead trees could be seen standing out to sea. On the shoreline a tangle of dead trees and exposed stumps indicated recent erosion. And at mid-tide there was the shell of a house that seven years earlier had been 400 metres inside the jungle. A most disagreeable scene.
    Picture here:

    Where the sand was absent there was an understrata of mud that was at least fifty (from the size of some of the trees), and for all I could tell hundreds or thousands of years old. So for the ten or twenty kilometres of coast I could see the shoreline was eroding at 50 to 100 metres per year. This made no sense at all. AGW sea level rise could not account for this. Once I had access to the internet, I was able to find research that indicates the GBM delta is sinking, as do other large deltas, under the weight of their sediment.
    Research sample here:

    The coastal strip of land where I observed the erosion appeared to be a barrier island; behind it is the Sundarbans reserve, eighty or so kilometres back to the boundary south of Mongla. As far as I could tell this forest of quite large trees was mostly under water at high tide; again, this makes no sense unless the land is sinking; these tidal areas tend to silt up over time. While all this is just traveler’s anecdote, I came away convinced that at least for the Khulna district, Bangladesh is extremely vulnerable to catastrophic cyclonic surge, and that this vulnerability will increase over time, regardless of AGW. An even worse disaster than the 1970 cyclone, which killed upwards of 500,000 people, remains possible.

    I would disagree with Mr Revkin that the IPCC should investigate regional impacts such as this. The interplay of factors at work here includes sediment build up, sediment reduction due to up-river dam building, delta subsidence, tectonic shifting (Bengal is tilting eastward) and no doubt more, let alone AGW and sea level rise. As for the Dhaka-based academics whose paper began this thread, they do have the problem that travel in Bangladesh is difficult and uncomfortable. I still have nightmares about the size and speed of the cockroach that shared my berth on the MV Bonbibi. Nevertheless credible research into the risks facing Bangladesh requires survey and measurement out in the field. And managing these risks requires a realistic assessment of Bangladesh’s capabilities.


  11. 261
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Steve, who are these “peer-reviewed economists” you keep invoking? I’m still waiting for an answer from you to my question in the “Bray” thread.

  12. 262
    Patrick says:

    Re 197 John, your arguments are well made but when making such arguments one needs to be aware of the best method of persuading people. The \ignorant\ public have been listening to high priests and authorities since ancient times fortelling doom and destruction and there is perhaps a natural tendency to be suspicious of the purveyors of these stories. In light of this one needs to choose carefully the best form of communication and messages to avoid antagonising people.

  13. 263
    Hank Roberts says:

    > avoid antagonising people

    Any? All? 51 percent? top management?
    Some people are going to be antagonized.

    Regrettably, I think, some people make a specialty out of being ticked off, it gets them what they want.

    There’s a very sad piece up today about “NPR’s new editorial director of digital media” who, you’d hope, was interested in news.

    Instead it’s a book about how everybody hates and whines a lot.

    All those little complaints are indicators of something bigger, Meyer told Steve Inskeep: a lack of trust in public leadership and an overall weakening of public morality.

    Coincidence? Cause and effect? Where’s he going with this?

    What’s sad is he says he gave up his bullshit detector on 9/11. Now he’s describing whiny people and says that describes everyone.

    His piece goes through a long list from his new book winds down with:

    “These are little things in some respects. They’re not global warming or genocide. But they don’t feel little.”

    To which I think the only response is:

    “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now… Here’s looking at you kid.”

    Bless his heart. I hope he gets his bullshit detector back.

    reCaptcha: Javert com

  14. 264

    RE #243, we do need some gov regs and programs to combat GW (esp to get the point-source industries to do the right thing), but I also agree that we need to have a relatively free market to encourage (nonpoint-source) people to do the right thing. This would entail internalizing at least some of the externalties (e.g., enviro & health harms from pollution and global warming).

    So gov could (slowly over the next 5 years) take away all the subsidies and tax breaks from fossil fuels (and make oil pay at least a small portion of military operations that involves oil-rich nations from which the companies get the oil), and also impose a modernate “externalities tax” — some of which would go back to the tax-payers. Then with that extra money the tax-payers could decide whether to pay, say, $10 per gallon (costing 33 cents/mile for a 30 mpg car), or opt for an electric car — which should cost less than an ICE car if mass produced — which costs less than 2 cents per mile to run.

    There could also be tax-breaks for buying electric cars. Some people would still opt for the ICE car for various reasons, but I think, at least for 2-car families, a whole lot of people would switch, and heavily rely on their EV for commuting purposes. I understand that with the latest battery tech, EVs can have a 200 mile range and recharge within 2 hours. See: . I know Tesla Roadsters are very expensive, but Tesla will be coming out with more economical sedans within a few years. And I understand other auto makers are developing EVs, tho they won’t have the range and quick charge that Tesla offers. Tho, of course, one could upgrade to the best battery tech — which is also somewhat expensive now, but should come down with mass marketing.

    Utility companies love EVs, since they mainly charge up at night, during their low peak time. The ComEd guy who came to our environmental group up north, was especially happy with they idea of EVs, since they are 75% nuclear & operations cannot be shut down at night, which means they are not operating at full-capacity, and rely heavily on coal-powered peaking plants.

    RE electricity generation: Without subsidies and tax-breaks for coal, and a “externalities tax” imposed, wind and solar (which either are or are quickly becoming cost competitive) would be offered as options, and the funds raised could be used as tax-breaks for buying wind or solar from companies, or for installing such equipment. You might see a lot more coal-powered utilities bringing an alt-powered component into their product line. They just need more incentive to do so.

    Some of the “externalities tax” funds could also go to help victims of local pollution and acid rain (some funds to Medicaid and Medicare) and GW harms (to hurricane, wildfire, flood, drought relief programs).

  15. 265
    Krishna says:

    I work for a newspaper based in Bombay. And I think we do end up portraying that there is disagreement. But that’s because there are a bunch of scientists who aren’t agreeing upon a certain theory.

    I recently worked on an article on nuclear energy, and we had equal number of scientists and environmentalists arguing for and against nuclear power.

    I feel any one who takes a dogmatic approach to climate ends up messing up the debate.

  16. 266
    Rod B says:

    Lynn (264), I tried to respond but I can’t get past the spam filter for love nor money. It was a really good response, too! :-)

  17. 267
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Krishna, Actually, the agreement among experts in climate science is overwhelming. The vocal opposition is mainly from people outside the field who do not understand the science and oppose it because of the political implication they perceive it to have. Look at the peer-reviewed publications, the number of citations of different articles, the numbers of professional societies of scientists in relevant disciplines, and the consensus becomes clear. An internet petition that lets anybody call themselves a scientist can’t really be taken as credible opposition.

  18. 268
    Rod B says:

    Lynn, I’ll try again but dumb it down a bit. I suggest caution. When you give a pile of money to the gov’t you have to watch them like a hawk. Don’t routinely assume they are going to do the good social or mitigation stuff you want. They tend to send money to people that might vote for them in the next election — generally as short-sited as industrialists.

    In case you miss this post, I inadvertantly (stupidly?) also put it in another thread :-P

  19. 269
    Phil. Felton says:

    Re #264
    “Utility companies love EVs, since they mainly charge up at night, during their low peak time. The ComEd guy who came to our environmental group up north, was especially happy with they idea of EVs, since they are 75% nuclear & operations cannot be shut down at night, which means they are not operating at full-capacity, and rely heavily on coal-powered peaking plants.”

    Utility companies love EVs as long as there are not too many of them! The last figures I saw indicated that a fleet of about 10% EVs would balance out the load if recharging at night, more than that would require extra capacity at night.

  20. 270
    SecularAnimist says:

    Phil. Felton wrote: “Utility companies love EVs as long as there are not too many of them! The last figures I saw indicated that a fleet of about 10% EVs would balance out the load if recharging at night, more than that would require extra capacity at night.”

    According to a December 2006 study by the US Department of Energy:

    If all the cars and light trucks in the nation switched from oil to electrons, idle capacity in the existing electric power system could generate most of the electricity consumed by plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. A new study for the Department of Energy finds that “off-peak” electricity production and transmission capacity could fuel 70% percent of the U.S. light-duty vehicle (LDV) fleet, if they were plug-in hybrid electrics …

    The study also looked at the impact on the environment of an all-out move to PHEVs. The added electricity would come from a combination of coal-fired and natural gas-fired plants. Even with today’s power plants emitting greenhouse gases, the overall levels would be reduced because the entire process of moving a car one mile is more efficient using electricity than producing gasoline and burning it in a car’s engine.

    The current generation of PHEVs (e.g. Prius conversions) have a range of 60-100 miles running as pure electric, battery-powered vehicles, a range which considerably exceeds the average daily driving needs of most Americans.

  21. 271
    SecularAnimist says:

    Ray Ladbury wrote: “The vocal opposition is mainly from people outside the field who do not understand the science and oppose it because of the political implication they perceive it to have.”

    I would say that the “vocal opposition” is mainly from (directly or indirectly) people who profit from the continued use of fossil fuels and quite correctly perceive that the actions needed to address global warming, namely a rapid phase-out of the use of their products, will lead to a massive transfer of wealth from their industry to the new energy industries of the 21st century and the loss of trillions of dollars in profit that they would otherwise expect to receive. From their point of view, the longer they can delay this inevitable transition, the better. They have either convinced themselves that the “inconvenient” science of global warming is wrong, or else they just don’t care because they think their wealth and power will enable them to escape its consequences. After all, there were those during the cold war who claimed that a global thermonuclear war with the USSR and China would be “winnable”. Exxon-Mobil executives and other such people may think the same thing about unmitigated global warming.

  22. 272
    Arthur Glass says:

    “This spectacle of duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree on anything.’

    Dueling and contradictory science sounds like the real thing to me. I’m addicted, for example, to reading Brian Greene on superstring/brane theory: I truly like weirdness, and 6-dimensional Calabi-Yao space turns me on. But I am aware that the theory is passionately, hotly contested.

    Hasn’t that pretty much been the case since the 17th c. Isaac Newton would have lost his head literally if James II had been victorious at the Battle of the Boyne (smack dab in the middle of the Maunder Minimum, by the way, when North Atlantic storms were truly vicious. He would have lost his had figuratively if he had known that for two hundred years the corpuscular theory of light was, by overwhelming consensus, as wacky as Newton’s alchemical speculations. He was redeemed, of course , in 1906 by Einstein, who in turn was a dissenter from the dice-playing God of Niels Bohr and quantum mechanics.

    Science is a method of inquiry before it is a body of knowledge.

    By the way, forgive me the pedantic note of a former teacher of English when I point out that ‘phenomena’ is plural, singular, ‘phenomenon.’

  23. 273
    Jim Galasyn says:

    Thomas Friedman has a good editorial today:

    …my trip with Denmark’s minister of climate and energy, Connie Hedegaard, to see the effects of climate change on Greenland’s ice sheet leaves me with a very strong opinion: Our kids are going to be so angry with us one day.

    We’ve charged their future on our Visa cards. We’ve added so many greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, for our generation’s growth, that our kids are likely going to spend a good part of their adulthood, maybe all of it, just dealing with the climate implications of our profligacy. And now our leaders are telling them the way out is “offshore drilling” for more climate-changing fossil fuels.

    Madness. Sheer madness. …

  24. 274
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Arthur Glass, Scientists are often argumentative by nature, so the frontiers of any field tend to be areas of controversy. However, in any field of science there are aspects where all contributing member agree. Note that I specify “contributing” members, because what motivates the agreement is the fact that the models, etc. don’t work unless they incorporate those facts. That is really what is meant by scientific consensus. Einstein’s opposition to quantum theory was a good case in point. He had good philosophical and to some extent physical arguments, but physics was just much more fruitful with quantum indeterminacy than without it.
    In climate science, the physics of CO2 is such a given. It’s why those few climate scientists who reject it never seem to publish anything of note.

  25. 275

    Here’s a piece of sloppy journalism that sows confusion and doubt from The Houston Chronicle. Reminds me of several years back when Jim Leherer said of the warming, “…which some scientists attibute to global warming” — as if there’s not even much balance in the “debate,” but only SOME, perhaps misguided since it’s only some, scientists claim AGW is happening.


    Some cite global warming as the culprit. Others point to a natural cycle in world climatory conditions. This much is certain: Glacier Bay National Park is changing…

    This pattern — which reflects snowfall rate, climate change and topography — has continued for about 250 years. It’s one of four extended periods of retreatment over a 4,000-year period that also has included four periods of advancement.

    What happens next?

    Will there be another reversal? Another era of advancement?

    “Scientists almost certainly would say yes, that the Earth will have another cold period,” Ranger David Deyette told us aboard the Coral Princess.

    “But it may not happen in our lifetime.”

  26. 276

    Re: #248, #250, #253

    Dear Hank,

    You know, there is a very wide spectrum of activities that a person become involved in — from being the next Al Gore to being a person who decides to drive less and conserve more energy.

    I agree with Rod B and you that not everyone is a great public speaker. But, surely, there are many who speak well.

    And, why should a scientist speak publicly? It is a simple matter to call up City Hall and arrange to talk to the city planner, if the city is not very large. Ideas and knowledge can be disseminated in this way, even if it seems to be on a very small scale. How many city planners have heard from concerned scientists? You can bet they hear from the business community about all of their concerns.

    btw, some of the regulars on Dot Earth are forming a pbwiki for discussion of ideas and actions. Although we have not finalized the setup, I will just let you know that at least in the beginning, the moderator will be me; thus, the kims of this world will be barred. It is called dotearthlings and will be up soon.

    As to the university scene, I am a brat of a brat (although, I doubt my mother would appreciate being called a brat). I grew up running around a university, and I spent 10 years at university, 3 in a doctoral program (finance) which I did not finish because I lack the math skills. I spent 6 years as a technical editor of peer-reviewed articles for the analytical chemistry and biomedical sections of Elsevier Science Publishers, B.V., in Amsterdam. Thus, it could be said that I have something of an idea of the life and times of professors and scientists, although I have never quite been inside the area.

    I do know that some researchers are not equipped to reach out in public ways, but there are other ways. I still think that we each have to do as much as we can in this regard because unless the politicians have the weight of public opinion to move them, they will not move. If the politicians do not move in the right direction very soon, we are toast. Thus, the logical thing is to do everything possible to get their attention and to get them moving along.

    Captcha: aid swear

  27. 277
    Hank Roberts says:

    > do everything possible

    Or do something limited and targeted collaboratively, really well.
    As Gavin wrote at the beginning:
    ————- from the opening of this thread:

    “… duelling and apparently contradictory science fuels the notion that scientists can’t agree …. increased coverage may actually be leading people to think that scientists are more divided on the basic questions.

    “Is this inevitable? Or can scientists, press officers and journal editors and journalists actually do anything about it?”

    Getting everyone capable of speaking out to go speak out is likely to increase the confusion. Can we focus?

    Can scientists whose work — illuminating different aspects of the world, so their papers seem to disagree — do something together to explain what they’re doing to the public? With editors/writers?

    I think the scientists will say that the climate, let alone the world, is yet anyone’s complete understanding, and they’re each working on illuminating some detail.

    Suggestion — focus on citation.
    Call it a Cited Science Forum, maybe.

    RC is a good example, but with very loose constraints on cites.

    DotEarth is an example of great topics, with comments routinely filled with unconstrained witnessing, and usually no citation at all.

    Most of the “science news” entertainment publications lack good citation, maybe to keep their readers on their page instead of send them away (ad-driven?) Most of the journals have cites but aren’t newsy-readable.

    This blog, new, has a _great_ attitude (hey, I think so anyhow):

    “… if you disagree with some point I make, or have a point to add yourself, then it is a good idea to include a link or full reference to a good source. One of the things about doing science is that you don’t take people’s reporting as gospel. Scientists are people, and people make mistakes. So it’s a good idea to make it easy for people to check out the full original source. When you’ve described something well, they can be thankful for your much better description. Or maybe they can learn more about the topic. Wins all around….”

    Isn’t that great? I love it. It’s the teacher’s right attitude.

    Can we find a way other scientists can participate along the lines of his model, with the public, helping nonscientists do it this way? Like the exchange of letters in Nature or Science, in blog form — edited, requiring that claims be cited — teaching readers how to look things up for themselves, how to ask good smart questions, how to go to the library reference desk, how to focus.

    How to describe the world as scientists do — observations, and footnotes with sources for on anything reported second-hand.

    It’d mean getting the journal editors and science writers to pledge to cite their sources in blogs — not hide them for journalistic advantage.

  28. 278
    Hank Roberts says:

    I’ll add, I completely agree with Tenney, act locally. My college newsletter recently reported on their little town’s council having a series of meetings about replacing the ancient electrical power generation facility for the location. The college biology and ecology people showed up to propose working up a green energy program for the town.

    They said they met a very serious professional team of lawyers and planners who came in for the local coal company — who had the contract on the old dirty coal plant and wanted to make sure the town council voted to agree on replacing it with another nice modern one built to the same standards, cheap and dirty.

    There must be industry teams like this visiting every town or county or college that has a coal plant for steam heat or electricity or both, wherever there’s a license coming up for renewal, or a facility at the end of its lifespan due to be replaced — pushing replacing it with the same old thing.

    The coal industry must have teams of lawyers and consultants, working out of a comprehensive database of were all those loads of coal have been sold, where the plants are that burn them — and when the’ll be up for renewal or replacement.

    You can bet there’s no counterforce team from the green future rolling out to those same meetings with the same background knowledge.

    Yeah, we need that too.

    Not what Gavin’s asking about in this topic, though. Anyone know if it’s being discussed anywhere else? Pointer please if so.

    Teamwork. They’ve got theirs and they’re well into playing the game.

  29. 279
    Fernando Magyar says:

    Re: spilgard @147,

    There are additional millions being born (an extra city every week, is it ?) and the majority aspire to a lavish reckless lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and they will more than compensate for the fringe who strive for voluntary simplicity and are completely satisfied with little.

    It’s not really that bad, we’re only adding about 3 cities worth a year.

    1 Tokyo Japan 32,450,000
    2 Seoul South Korea 20,550,000
    3 Mexico City Mexico 20,450,000

    My personal view is somewhere between the late George Carlin

    And Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy

  30. 280
    Phillip Huggan says:

    Uncertainty is fine. It is dealt with in the oil industry, insurance, etc. IPCC scientists just have to do a better job of quantifying their uncertainty (Earth scientists need to understand statistics when brainstorming together). Right now they say “high probability”, “90%+ confidence”…they need to say: we are 99.5% certain warmer ocean sequester less CO2, or 20% of the evidence indicates more warmer world clouds will be warming highwer altitude and 15% of the evidence says cooling low clouds and 65% of evidence in inconclusive.
    Then again, reinsurance actuaries don’t have the most powerful nation on Earth and the most profitable industry on Earth interfereing with their executive summaries the way Bush and Exxon successfully modify IPCC research. I’m surprised IPCC lets this happen. My suggestion for IPCC:
    It would be nice if IPCC quantified their uncertainty for each potential positive feedback mechanism. For starters, they haven’t done a very good job of estimating the economic damages of climate change. Nicolas Stern has said once we get to 2C warming, we are likely locked in to a 6C warming. For starters, I’d like an estimate for each degree of warming, of the economic cost of:
    1) Reduced agri-yields. IPCC claims yields might increase, ignoring that precipitation variability of any type is devastating to crop yields. Also, many climate scientists claim crops can be grown in the thin acidic boggy soil of boreal forests.
    2) Lost freshwater. Aquifers haven’t been charted accurately anywhere. The AB government has been blocking this mapping in AB. The Himalayas provide freshwater to almost half the people. If they melt, the damage might be in the $quadrillions, but no one has looked at this in detail.
    3) 60% of cities being flooded late this century or early next. Which should be saved and which should be abandoned? No triage plans as of yet. How to leave cities so environmental damage is limited. Where to house evacuees. How to build capital now in these cities so it is mobile enough to move. Canada’s Scorched Earth plan to evacuate Atlantic cities in the event of a Nazi invasion, comes to mind.
    4) The geopolitical costs of mass refugee flows. 9-11 led to the $2 trillion Iraq War debacle. Once again, this cost may run in the $quadrillions.
    There are many others, but against the above five the Mountain Pine Beetle’s potential destruction of $100 billion in forest is minor.

    With the above in mind, each potential positive feedback should be estimated as to the probability it will occur at each degree warming, it’s severity, and over what temperature intervals it is relevant. No problem if uncertainty is big; economists and actuaries deal with this uncertainty (strange deniers don’t realize uncertainty is a known commodity in geopolitics and finance). I’m assuming linear temperature forcings won’t be a problem. GHG levels and albedo effects need to be translated into degrees Centigrade warming, with a premium for fast and near-term warming. *Some* potential nonlinear positive warming feedbacks:
    1) Rainforest die-off (not observed) may release sequestered carbon soil.
    2) Increased cooling loads (A/C) emit more GHGs.
    3) Crop failures and land use changes (cutting down rainforests for farms and not using fallow) may result if warmer temperatures drop agri-yields (or the opposite could occur if more plants in a warmer world sequester more carbon in soil).
    4) Sequestered GHGs from permafrost may occur (very complicated).
    5) Reduced ice area reduces albedo.
    6) Warmer temps might (or not) lead to increased snowpack with reduced albedo.
    7) Warmer temps might draw attention to biofuels that might emit more GHGs than they replace.
    8) More clouds will likely be created, possibly leading to more high altitude clouds (or they could be low altitude cooling clouds).
    9) Glaciers could be melted, affecting ocean circulation and potentially (or the opposite) leading to warming ocean current circulation patterns (my thesis for temp occilations at end of last ice age).
    10) Increased defense (drought and famine refugee flows) and infrastructure (dykes) investments might draw capital away from clean goods and R+D.
    11) Warmer ocean has decreased ability to sequester CO2.
    12) Forest fires increase in a warmer world, directly emitting soot and GHGs, and probably indirectly via soil carbon losses.
    13) Catastrophic wamring effects of geoengineering gone wrong could result if solar shades, atmospheric particles or sunken algae blooms unleash a Pandora’s Box of effects.
    14) Everything else.
    To be sure there are negative forcings that should cancel out much of this.

  31. 281
    CL says:

    279,Fernando Magyar, you appear to have misattributed my comments at 147 (to spilgard)

    I suppose it depends upon how you define a city. I think, in UK, a quarter of a million counts as a city. I gather global population increase, per annum, is around 75 millions. So that’d be 300 UK-type cities per annum, or around three Mexico Cities.

  32. 282
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    Andrew Dessler has a good post on this topic and links to a Slate coverage of Andy Revkin’s article. Andy Revkin responds on DotEarth to Slate.
    The Uncertainty Agenda
    Slate Columnist: ‘Find the Arguments’ in Climate Science

  33. 283
    Joseph O'Sullivan says:

    The NY Times ran an article about how the US court system uses dueling witnesses and the difficulties this causes. Its very similar to how the popular press uses scientists in reporting.

  34. 284
    John says:

    I reckon Phillip Huggan has a point when he mentions ‘triage’ in relation to climate change. There’s a new web site that explores how this type of decision making might work — worth a quick glance

  35. 285
    Chris H. says:

    Thanks for the tip John. yes, I found this site at most edifying. Lots of food for thought there on how we might optimize our response to impending climate change.

  36. 286
    Tony says:

    Whiplash? The [Australian] ABC web site today (26/8/08) carried this story by Gwynne Dwyer
    Analyst warns of looming global climate wars
    To be honest it seems like a crank article intended to discredit climate science by being over-the-top crazy – is it? Does Gwynne Dwyer have any credibility?
    Posted Mon Aug 25, 2008 3:14pm AEST
    Updated Mon Aug 25, 2008 3:18pm AEST
    The Arctic ocean could be entirely free of ice in five years’ time, Gwynne Dwyer says

    The Arctic ocean could be entirely free of ice in five years’ time, Gwynne Dwyer says (AFP: NASA)

    * Audio: Military analyst predicts ‘climate wars’ (The World Today)

    The prospect of global wars driven by climate change is not something often discussed publicly by our political leaders.

    But according to one of America’s top military analysts, governments in the US and UK are already being briefed by their own military strategists about how to prepare for a world of mass famine, floods of refugees and even nuclear conflicts over resources.

    Gwynne Dyer is a military analyst and author who served in three navies and has held academic posts at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and at Oxford.

    Speaking about his latest book, Climate Wars, he says there is a sense of suppressed panic from the scientists and military leaders.

    “Mostly it’s about winners and losers, at least in the early phases of climate change,” he said.

    “If you’re talking about 1 degree, 2 degrees hotter – not runaway stuff – but what we’re almost certainly committed to over the next 30 or 40 years, there will be countries that get away relatively cost free in that scenario, particularly countries in the higher latitudes.”

    But he says that closer to the equator in the relatively arid zone – where Australia is situated – there will be very serious droughts.

    “[There will be] huge falls in the amount of crops that you can grow because there isn’t the rain and it’s too hot,” he said.

    “That will apply particularly to the Mediterranean… and so not just the north African countries, but also the ones on the northern side of the Mediterranean.

    “The ones in the European Union like Spain and Italy and Greece and the Balkans and Turkey are going to be suffering huge losses in their ability to support their populations.

    Climate refugees

    He says a fall in crops and food production means there will be refugees, people who are desperate.

    “It may mean the collapse in the global trade of food because while some countries still have enough, there is still a global food shortage,” he said.

    “If you can’t buy food internationally and you can’t raise enough at home, what do you do? You move. So refugee pressures – huge ones – are one of the things that drives these security considerations.”

    In Climate Wars, even the most hopeful scenarios about the impact of climate change have hundreds of millions of people dying of starvation, mass displacement of people and conflict between countries competing for basic resources like water.

    “India and Pakistan are both nuclear-armed countries. All of the agriculture in Pakistan and all of the agriculture in northern India depend on glacier-fed rivers that come off the Himalayas from the Tibetan plateau. Those glaciers are melting,” Dr Dyer said.

    “They’re melting according to Chinese scientists to 7 per cent a year, which means they’re half gone in 10 years.

    “India has a problem with this. Pakistan faces an absolutely lethal emergency because Pakistan is basically a desert with a braid of rivers running through it.

    “Those rivers all start with one exception in Indian-controlled territory and there’s a complex series of deals between the two countries about who gets to take so much water out of the river. Those deals break down when there’s not that much water in the rivers.”

    And then you have got the prospect of a nuclear confrontation, Dr Dyer says.

    “It’s unthinkable but yet it’s entirely possible. So these are the prices you start to pay if you get this wrong,” he said.

    “Some of them, actually, I’m afraid we’ve already got them wrong in the sense that there is going to be some major climate change.”

    Dr Dyer explains the least alarmist scenario for the next couple of decades still involves enormous pressures on the US border.

    “That border’s going to be militarised. I think there’s almost no question about it because the alternative is an inundation of the United States by what will be, effectively, climate refugees,” he said.

    “They [US] are concerned actually about losing a lot of land and a lot of crop production within the United States itself.

    “A lot of Florida’s basically about six inches above sea level – and the Mississippi River Delta, well we’ve already seen what one hurricane did there – plus of course many interventions overseas by the American armed forces as much bigger emergencies occur in much bigger parts of the world.”

    Worst-case scenario

    But the real insight into the US study is that the more severe climate change scenario is the one that analysts think is the more likely one.

    “And it’s not just the analysts. I spent the past year doing a very high-speed self-education job on climate change but I think I probably talked to most of the senior people in the field in a dozen countries,” Dr Dyer said.

    “They’re scared, they’re really frightened. Things are moving far faster than their models predicted.

    “You may have the Arctic ocean free of ice entirely in five years’ time, in the late summer. Nobody thought that would happen until about the 2040s – even a couple of years ago.”

    Dr Dyer says there is a sense of things moving much faster, and the military are picking up on that.

    He also says we will be playing climate change catch-up in the next 30 years.

    “The threshold you don’t want to cross, ever, is 2 degrees Celsius hotter than it was at the beginning of the 1990s,” he said.

    “That is a margin we have effectively already used up more than half of. It would require pretty miraculous cooperation globally and huge cuts in emissions.”

    And if the world does not decarbonise by 2050, you don’t want to be there, according to Dr Dyer.

    “My kids will and I don’t think that is going to be a pleasant prospect at all, because once you go past 2 degrees – and you could get past 2 degrees by the 2040s without too much effort – things start getting out of control,” he said.

    “The ocean starts giving back to the atmosphere the carbon dioxide it absorbed. That world is a world where crop failures are normal.

    “Where, for example, Australia does not export food any more, it is hanging on to what it can still grow to feed its own people but that is about all that it is going to be able to do, and many countries can’t even do that.”

    He says China will take an enormous blow.

    “There is a study out from the Chinese Academy of Scientists and then swiftly disappeared again, but about two years ago, we predicted the maximum damage that would be done to China under foreseeable climate change in the 21st century was 38 per cent cut in food production,” he said.

    “That is only about three-fifths of the food they now eat and there will be a lot more of them.

    “I think we will end up having to do things that at the moment nobody would consider doing like geo-engineering, ways of keeping the temperature down while we get our emissions down.”

    – Adapted from an interview first aired on The World Today, August 25.

    [Response: People trying to sell a book often get a little carried away. But he’s referencing Maslowski’s ‘2013’ statement, which as we’ve stated before is not a widely held view. – gavin]

  37. 287
    David Donovan says:

    Tony asked..
    “Does Gwynne Dwyer have any credibility ?”

    He has his fans and detractors but he is indeed a man who has spent a lifetime thinking hard about geopolitics and conflicts and why they occur and how they are conducted.

    He has a web site where one can access his column articles (under the recent articles links).

    Judge for yourself..