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Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?

Filed under: — gavin @ 30 November 2008

Debra Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a history of writing misleading contrarian pieces on climate change. She contacted NASA Public Affairs recently for a comment on the initial glitch on the October GHCN numbers (see this earlier post for discussions of that). They forwarded the query to me and since her questions were straightforward, I answered them as best I could. Indeed in her subsequent column, she quotes me accurately and in context. However, the rest of her column shows none of the same appreciation for basic journalistic standards.

She starts by asking why newspapers are no longer trusted – a good question, and one that may indeed be answerable. However the column quickly goes off the rails. First off, her headline “When the warmest year in history isn’t” doesn’t appear to be related to any actual content. Possibly it refers to the 1934/1998 hoohah from last year (again see posts passim for discussion on its irrelevance to global warming). Journalists don’t generally write their own headlines, but a vague connection to current events is the more usual practice.

Next, she gets the Oreskes’ Science and society paper story completely wrong (it was a sampling of literature and survived numerous challenges to its validity – see here and here). Then she uncritically quotes David Bellamy (a late-developing contrarian who used to present natural history programs on the BBC) who appears to think that an anti-GW article he wrote in 2004 is responsible for him not presenting BBC documentaries since 1994 (an event he had previously blamed on his running against John Major (then UK prime minister) in an election). She then throws in a few completely untrue ‘facts’ (i.e. “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” (not) and “in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased” (no it didn’t) or that there ‘has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ (wrong again: 0.21 +/- 0.13 deg C/dec GISTEMP, OLS, 95% CI)). However, note that she is quoting Bellamy and Lindzen here, so that it can be plausibly claimed that she is just reporting the statements rather than endorsing their nonexistent truth value. Sneaky. She even quotes Marc Morano and the Erika Lovley column in support of a contention that the consensus is collapsing. Oh dear.

In fact, the only bit of original reportage in the piece comes from the email from me; the rest of the article is simply a cut-and-paste of untrue and unverified claims strung together in a facsimile of logical argument. Why is it so hard for newspapers to insist that their columnists at least make an effort to check their facts? If she can email NASA about the GHCN issue, she could have emailed any number of people about the other points she made if she’d wanted to get it right.

The sad thing is that this kind of empty rhetoric is being employed at a time when maximum intellectual effort needs to be put into dealing with the energy and climate situation. As I’ve said elsewhere, the reflexive refusal of some commentators (on the right and, occasionally, the left) to come to terms with the reality of climate change is profoundly disappointing and an abdication of their potentially constructive role in public life.

If Ms. Saunders wants an answer for why “people don’t trust newspapers”, she need only fact-check her own column.

262 Responses to “Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?”

  1. 101
    Mark says:

    Alexander #88. I thing you overlooked what “peak oil” means too.

    It doesn’t mean we can’t continue to extract more or we’re running out *now*, it means that the ability to increase extraction or maintain it in the face of increasing demand cannot be made. So supply, as you put it, was inelastic in increasing demand.

    That’s all.

    Now, if you want to ask why demand increased, one reason would be oil is traded in dollars so non-US countries hoard dollars to buy oil. But if the dollar is falling, the oil doesn’t: you can still drive a 40mpg car 40 miles on a gallon, etc. So the “worth” of oil doesn’t depend on the value of the money used to buy it.

    So while the dollar goes down, buy and hoard the oil instead of the dollars.

    Et voila! Increased demand.

  2. 102
    Slioch says:

    #89 Donald Oates

    “Is this sort of campaign [of anti-AGW misinformation] happening in the European countries too?”

    Yes it is, as I mentioned in #35 above. The swamp is growing.

    I think that far more effort needs to be made by scientifically literate individuals to counter this growing tide of misinformation. Sites such as Realclimate and Tamino’s Open Mind do a great job at one end of the spectrum of comment, but they do not, and cannot be expected to, reach the great mass of the public. They read the sort of garbage articles that Saunders writes in the SF Chronicle and Christopher Booker writes in the UK Telegraph and the stuff you mention in the Australian.

    I despair of a scientific community that deigns not to get involved sufficiently at this level of comment. Yes, it is repetitive, boring, mucky work: but it needs to be done, and if it is not then a greater and greater proportion of the population will come to believe that AGW is a scam. And each one of those has a vote.

    As far as the USA is concerned it seems to me that the campaign to unseat Obama has already begun, and it will be based on the unpleasant short term effects of trying to deal with AGW and convincing people that it is not necessary.

    The most useful outcome of the above discussion would be if it gave rise to an organised structured campaign to better counter the tide of misinformation at the level of the daily newspaper. All it needs for evil to flourish is for good men to remain silent.

  3. 103
    pete best says:

    Re;Re#92, Gavin

    I know that this is somewhat speculative but is it known at what CO2 (GHG) levels that natures sinks potentially become sources? If James Hansens recent work on earth sensitivity regarding short term charney feedbacks and long term earth feedbacks (Ice Albedo and forestry movement northwards etc) states that the Arctic summer sea ice is almost certain to disappear and 425 ppmv threatens a lot of Antarctica’s ice sheets (WAIS and some EAIS. Then is the threat of Methane release and/or rain forest change/collapse and the oceans ability to soak up Co2 a natural threat to continuing CO2 release regardless which fossil fuel to 2050?

    Some of the environmental writers are starting to realise this potential future of the planet but what is the reality in the eyes of real climate (GISS) and other scientific climate bodies?

    Your recent article on James Hansen’s earth sensitivity seems to agree with him although there is uncertainty (the article is excellent by the way).

  4. 104
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Chris Vernon,
    I think one source of confusion people have is to be found in the term “…at present rates of consumption…”. I know of no one who expects energy demand to decrease in coming years–either nationally or globally. What is more, with oil peaking or about to peak, there is every possibility of using up coal reserves within 50 years, even if reserves are not significantly underestimated. Such rapid release of CO2 would likely push us out of the range where humans could make any meaningful efforts to limit climate change, as natural sources of CH4 and CO2 would start to dwarf manmade sources. And even if that were not sufficient, anyone who thinks we couldn’t find a way to exploit tar sands, oil shale, etc. underestimates both human ingenuity and shortsightedness.

  5. 105
    truth says:

    Donald Oats—Your description of what goes on in Australia is completely untruthful.
    The previous government [ conservative]did not stack the board of the ABC [ national broadcaster], as you describe–it did nothing more or less than have other governments—and , in any case, it’s not the board, but the on-air journalists and interviewers who create the perceptions on this issue and others—and most have links to the Leftist party [ Labor] now in power—and have no shame when it comes to pushing the Left view on this and every other subject— that’s how it was right through the term of the conservative government—-and now.
    Almost all the people they interview on this and every other issue are from the Left.
    Sceptical scientists are almost never heard or interviewed on Australia’s ABC, or any other news media outlet—only the Left AGW view is tolerated , and makes it to the mainstream media.
    There’s almost a complete blanket shutdown in Australia, on any alternative views on this issue, and sceptical scientists are sneered at and denigrated, while people like Tim Flannery are treated like gods —infallible—no matter what they say.
    Debate on climate change is extremely rare except on the blogs—[ it’s only recently that The Australian has challenged the shutdown of debate] —and when a miniscule amount of debate on air is allowed, a sceptical view invites certain ridicule—and any prominent politician who expressed doubts re the consensus would risk political suicide.

    [Response: This is a caricature. What the Australian has been printing recently (see Deltoid posts going back months) is not worthy of the name of serious debate – it is politically-driven nonsense dressed up as dissent. People would take your critiques much more seriously, if the debate you were promoting was seriously about the issues – cap-and-trade vs. carbon taxes, the role of mandates, energy efficiency, equity etc. Instead, the ‘sceptical’ side you seem to be is just the same old rubbish. David Bellamy? Michael Duffy? Please. As for Tim Flannery, we’ve often been critical of some of his comments, and we’d do the same if they came from anyone else. The debate is not between sense and nonsense, it is in making sense of the options ahead. That should be what you are pushing for. – gavin]

  6. 106
    Mark Smith says:

    re 102 Siloch.

    Have a look at the Telegraph web-site. Go to the “earth” section, where the environmental coverage is. I won’t pretend that I’ve examined every article, but I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find many that are AGW sceptic. And that’s the Telegraph – the most right-wing of the UK broadsheets.

    If the AGW message is not gaining wide currency with the populace at large (I don’t know if it is or not), it certainly isn’t due to lack of promotion in the newspapers or the BBC.

    I wonder, indeed, if the media’s constant explanation of all unpleasant ‘natural’ events as being due to AGW might be turning it into some sort of fetish, which many find easy to ignore.

    An interesting thing I observed yesterday. Some school children aged about 10 or 11 were waiting at a bus stop. One of them dropped a sweet wrapper on the ground. One of the others pointed at the discarded litter and shouted “Global Warming!” They all laughed.

  7. 107
    Cardin Drake says:

    Re: 82 & 94
    Nobody has doubted that there has been warming from 1920-2003. The Fresno article asserted that warming over the past 2 decades was causing increasing wild fires in California. That is highly unlikely. I can’t tell from your graphs how much warming has occurred in the last 2 decades, but I think it is probably minimal. Certainly it is for the last ten years. Was last winter unusually warm or cold? Who knows? Not the reporter. They never fact-check anything, and the Fresno article was a mish-mash of generalities that were just plain wrong. It wasn’t hard for me to find this. Why couldn’t a reporter?
    “The connection between global warming and the long-term increase in fire activity is relatively strong across the mid-elevation forests of Alaska, Canada, and parts of the western United States, where observed data show clear temperature and fire trends. For Southern California’s coastal chaparral ecosystems, the fire record shows occasional large fire years, but no statistically significant trends.”

  8. 108
    Marcus says:

    Philip Machanick (#97): 8 Mt of CO2 is 8 million tonnes. Density of liquid CO2 depends on temperature and pressure but we can approximate it with the density of H2O which is 1 tonne/cubic meter. Which is 1 Gigaton of H2O/cubic kilometer (I think you may have dropped a factor of a thousand in the cubic meter to cubic kilometer step). So 8 Mt of CO2 is about 0.008 km^3. Total global CO2 emissions is about 26 Gt, so if we successfully liquify our global CO2 emissions then we are talking order of 26 km^3.

  9. 109
    truth says:

    Exactly what in my post is caricature?
    Are you going to pretend that we actually do get real debate on this issue in Australia[I’m not sure how you would know, since you don’t live here—- maybe you monitor Australian television etc—so point me to the debate].
    I made one small mention of The Australian, with no comment except to say it was calling for debate.
    Where did I mention David Bellamy and Michael Duffy? I did not
    My issue is that there is no debate allowed—the debate I’m promoting is debate itself—-and in your advice to restrict the debate to the policies that completely assume the unassailability of the ‘consensus’, you are tacitly proclaiming that there should be no debate on AGW itself—no matter what scientific views are put forward by others.
    That does appear to presuppose infallibility on the part of the AGW scientists.
    Apparently I must be pushing for , not debate and discussion by other scientists, who could possibly be critical of you[ but may actually have insights to offer], but only those policies that will turn our countries inside out, wreck economies, cause disruption and dislocation, with possibly no effect on the world’s climate at all.
    In any case that’s a debate that is also shut down, so it would be great if that could begin, alongside the debate that includes scientists who question the ‘consensus’.
    Let’s just have a bit of democracy instead of this ‘post-normal science’.

    [Response: There is a huge difference between democracy and spending all of ones time promoting ‘debate’ with people who think the Earth is flat. You’d find it a darn sight easier to promote debate if you had serious critiques to put forward. The problem with your ‘side’ on this, is that the anti-GW public intellectuals have allowed their critical faculties to whither in order to advance political (not scientific) agendas. This is a huge failing on their part, and in no small part probably adds to their (apparent) lack of credibility with the ABC (outside of Counterpoint where it appears to be a necessary requirement). What is needed is not for ABC or whoever to give equal time for nonsense, but for that constituency to start making sense. At which point things might rebalance. – gavin]

  10. 110
    Marcus says:

    Re: Cardin Drake (#107): Speaking of fact checking, why don’t you read the whole article that you cite?

    “A possible connection between Southern California fires over the past decade, including the current fires, and climate change depends on the extent to which the ongoing drought in the greater Southwest may be related to climate change. Some researchers suggest that the extent and severity of the recent drought may be related to warming-driven early snowmelt, northward retreat of winter storm tracks, and expansion of desiccating subtropical high pressure into the southern mid-latitude locations, such as the southwestern United States (Seagar et al. 2007; Science, Volume 316).”

    From the Fresno article: “Scientists also have discovered that in many places nothing signals a bad fire year like a short winter and an early snowmelt. Overall, 72% of the land scorched across the West from 1987 to 2003 burned in early snowmelt years.” and “One of the first to make the link was Anthony Westerling, an assistant professor at the University of California at Merced whose 2006 paper in Science magazine found fires grow more unruly in years when the mountain snowpack melts early.”

    Also, I note that the Fresno article talked about fires in the northeast of Sacramento, northern California, the West in general, and Oregon. None of those is specifically addressing Southern California, which is anomalous among western regions in having the least correlation (but not zero) between standard climate warming indicators and forest fires.

    For an article from the Fresno Bee, it seems quite good, actually. I mean, a perfect article might have clearer citations to the research and do a better job of determining the scope of possible attribution – but we aren’t talking about a peer-reviewed science article for crying out loud!

  11. 111
    Mark says:

    I agree. But it cuts both ways. There are plenty of articles with “global warming is causing XYZ problems” that are based upon faulty assumptions and data. I’d hazard to say this far outweighs the contrarian articles.

  12. 112
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Mark Smith, #106. Well, it is good that young people now are getting a laugh about climate change, as they are the ones who will likely bear its burden. Your point about the environmental coverage in the Telegraph is actually quite germane to the post. It emphasizes the discrepancy between the news and the editorial page. Since there is really not anything in the news that contradicts the consensus view of climate and anthropogenic causation, denialist editors and columnists are left with nothing to do but spin the facts into a creaky edifice that can support their own inconsistent position.
    ReCaptcha is getting deep: power boring

  13. 113
    John Mashey says:

    slioch @102

    Actually, if Saunders’ articles must be published somewhere, a San Francisco paper is one of the safest possible places for them :-) In some other places, they might actually have some effect.

    mark smith @106
    re: Telegraph
    Do you understand the difference between reporting and opinion?

    If not, again see what to do about poor science reporting, specifically the discussion of split opinion-vs-reporting in the Wall Street Journal. The Telegraph seems to take a similar approach. I went to the website and searched for booker climate … and that was enough to be quite clear.

    If a newspaper has political reasons not to like scientific facts, the best way for it to prevent facts for being acted on without totally destroying their credibility is:

    a) Provide reasonable factual reporting, which gives them cover … to
    b) Nullify that by giving prominence to very-nonfactual opinions.

    Causing confusion and doubt is quite sufficient… and newspapers must be careful when reporting facts, but they can print any opinions they want, and on many topics, that’s just fine, but politically-motivated OpEds that offer opinions on science really aren’t worth much.

  14. 114
    Ike Solem says:

    There are many studies on California wildfires and global warming, all of which support a link between the two. Here are some additional ones:

    “Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity, Westerling et. al”

    The research is the most systematic analysis to date of recent changes in forest fire activity in the western United States. The increases in fire extent and frequency are strongly linked to higher March-through-August temperatures and are most pronounced for mid-elevation forests in the northern Rocky Mountains. The new finding points to climate change, not fire suppression policies and forest fuel accumulation, as the primary driver of recent increases in large forest fires.

    Massive California Fires Consistent With Climate Change, Experts Say

    (Oct. 24, 2007) — The catastrophic fires that are sweeping Southern California are consistent with what climate change models have been predicting for years, experts say, and they may be just a prelude to many more such events in the future — as vegetation grows heavier than usual and then ignites during prolonged drought periods…

    Fire forecast models developed by Neilson’s research group at OSU and the Forest Service rely on several global climate models. When combined, they accurately predicted both the Southern California fires that are happening and the drought that has recently hit parts of the Southeast, including Georgia and Florida, causing crippling water shortages.

    Yes, that was last year, which helps explain the firefighter quoted in #94. Quiz: we all know that “no single event can be attributed to climate change”, right? So, how many single events does it take? How do we distinguish between noise and a trend? Maybe reporters should start talking about that, instead of just repeating the “no single event” mantra. After all, every historical record is made up of single events, and if no single event can be attributed to anything, then we can’t attribute anything to anything, can we?

    These predictions have been around for about ten years – see 1998:

    “Climate change would cause fires to spread faster and burn more intensely in most vegetation types,” the researchers concluded in their report. These faster, hotter fires could be expected to frequently escape containment, despite increased fire suppression efforts. This would result in many more acres being burned than under the current climate. “The biggest impacts are seen in grass vegetation, where the fastest spread rates already occur,” says Fried. “In forests, where fires move much more slowly, projected impacts are less severe.”

    However, one of the noted effects of warming on trees is an increased susceptibility to insect outbreaks, as well as other effects on tree health – effects that are not included in climate models:
    “Climate Change Caused Widespread Tree Death In California Mountain Range, Study Confirms”

    ScienceDaily (Aug. 15, 2008) — Warmer temperatures and longer dry spells have killed thousands of trees and shrubs in a Southern California mountain range, pushing the plants’ habitat an average of 213 feet up the mountain over the past 30 years, a UC Irvine study has determined.”

    Note also that the study ruled out pollutants such as ozone as the culprit, because, quote: “the area does not have unusually high carbon dioxide levels, and they did not observe the characteristic speckling on plants caused by ozone damage. Also, if it was pollution, all of the plants would be suffering, not just the ones at the bottom of their range.”

    Unfortunately, similar synergistic effects are occuring within the Canadian boreal forest, which is under assault by pine beetles who are thriving due to warmer winters in Canada. This is something that climate models will not see, as it involves an ecological interaction between species – meaning that fire predictions should be adjusted upwards somewhat.

    This biological factor is why there is not a simple relationship between the use of fossil fuels and temperature – there isn’t even a simple relationship between fossil fuel combustion and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to biological and chemical responses, ranging from insect infestations to outgassing permafrost.

  15. 115
    Lawrence Brown says:

    Op-Eds probably don’t get fact checked, because many like Saunders don’t cite facts as much as they reflect those who agree with their own opinions.

    The following quote from her latest article suggests that she’s more interested in selling papers than in sciencel
    ” But if a study or scientist does not (predict) the end of the world as we know it, it rarely rates as news.”
    Alao from the column”
    “Bellamy notes that official data show that “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder, and in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased.”
    ” Richard S. Lindzen recently wrote: There has been no warming since 1997 and no statistically significant warming since 1995.”
    What about the fact that the Artic in the fall of 2007 shrank to the smallest ice surface area on record? What about the continued shrinking of mountain glaciers? The continuing rise of sea level?Also are we to accept a ten years of temperature record as a long term trend?
    And another
    ” Alas, it is hard to see Goddard as objective when its director, James Hansen, testified in a London court in September in support of six eco vand–ls. A jury then acquitted the six Green…… activists on charges of vandlizing a British coal-fired power plant based on the “lawful excuse” defense that their use of force would prevent greater damage to the environment after Hansen predicted the one ……….. plant could push 400 species into extinction.Of course, he could be wrong.”
    Given her track record, how do we know her reporting on Hansen’s testimony isn’t twisted, even though, it sounds like the logic of his testimony seems to be on the mark.
    Can we believe Leon Lederman’s remarks in his book “The God Particle”? It rings of truth among those who ignore the weight of evidence pointing to AGW
    “The range of abilities among scientists is also huge.——————.We count among us minds of also power,those who are (extremely0 clever———haveuncanny intuition———–. we also have jerks, and those who are just dumb……dumb!”
    “you mean relative to you others” my mother once protested
    “No, mom, dumb like anyone is dumb”
    “So how did he get a PHD?” she challenged.
    ” Sitzfleisch,Mom” ” Sitzfleisch: the ability to sit through any task,to do it again and again until the job is somehow is
    done. Those who give PHDs are human too. Sooner or later they give in.”
    It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the31.0000 scientists, she cites , as rejecting the evidence, fall into this category.There are many peole who may lack in formal education, but compensate this with native intelligence.

  16. 116
  17. 117
    Phil Scadden says:

    Truth – (yeah right) – you have the extrordinary idea that AGW is “left” idea, like an economic opinion rather than fact. Are you implying that the “conservatives” prefer fantasy to fact? This seems to be a good characterization of the Bush administration, at least seen from the outside, but I have too much respect for conservatives to accept this as a blanket idea. I do think that left and right will have different opinions on the way to deal with climate change but not with the basic facts.

  18. 118
  19. 119
    dhogaza says:

    Are you implying that the “conservatives” prefer fantasy to fact?

    Do keep in mind that Conservapedia did, for about a half year, in its article about “reality”, acknowledge that “reality has a well-known liberal bias” :)

  20. 120
    Craig Allen says:

    Hey truth,

    The real problem for pundits wanting to push a skeptic/delayist agenda in Australia is that it is now bleeding obvious to the general public that the climate is warming. When we hear skeptics banging on about how it has been cooling over the last decade, it jars with the reality apparent to our own eyes in the ongoing tragedy of the Murray-Darling System collapse, and the dieing gardens and parks of south-eastern cities and towns. Then we hear about the record low arctic ice, melting glaciers, the trend analyses from our Bureau of Meterology etc. and it all appears to be pointing in the same direction.

    For a long time various members of my extended family kept clinging to the possibility that this was all just climactic cycles and variability and such. No longer. They understand that such cycles and variability are part of the system, but that there is an overlying warming. We all hope that we might see a few more cool wet cycles some time soon, but understand that the odds are diminishing.

    The skeptics will not regain the public’s confidence until their point of view starts to reflect reality.

  21. 121
    David B. Benson says:

    Marcus (108) — The carbon emissions for 2007 CE was about 8.5 GtC from fossil fuels and 1.5 GtC from deforestation; the toatal is about 10 GtC, that’s about 38 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

    Which is worse that you wrote.

  22. 122
    truth says:

    I replied to Alan (64), and his ridicule of Andrew Bolt, one of only a handful of journalists in Australia who is willing to say there’s any contrarian view on AGW at all, and my post was deleted.
    It appears it’s permissible for Alan to attempt to tear down this [almost] lone questioning journalist, yet it’s unacceptable for a fellow Australian to counter that with the alternative view of Bolt’s work.
    Most of Andrew Bolt’s comments on this subject are accompanied by views or accounts of results , from scientists who are questioning and seeking information on, the integrity of the global temperature measurements and the quality of the stations and the methods used in that —the tree ring data and methods etc.
    The general point I’ve been making in my three comments [ only two posted, one of which was a reply to a spray against me by Gavin], is illustrated on this blog, as well as in the wider community.
    It’s open season on anyone who questions the ‘consensus’ at all—-they must expect to be demonised, sneered at and ridiculed—but those who attempt to smear the questioners are welcome to do so—especially if they’re complimentary to Gavin and others.
    In Australia, we have a situation, where, on any occasion that climate change or environmental issues are raised in parliament, the Labor government takes the opportunity to accuse the Opposition [ conservative side] , of AGW scepticism, with accompanying slurs and jeers —knowing the media is on the side of the Left, and would make it political death for any prominent Opposition politician to suggest caution or open-mindedness— even wanting to delay carbon trading till the economic crisis has eased, is treated as almost criminal.
    We’ve already seen world food shortages and price inflation resulting from the use of corn and other crops for biofuels—– and the Amazon forests of Brazil, and the peat lands of Asia, are still being destroyed to grow other crops and for biofuels.
    You take a great deal upon yourselves with the claims to all-knowing infallibility that attitudes here imply—especially with your attitudes to other scientists who wish to test and verify your conclusions.

    [Response: Don’t be an ass. No-one is claiming to be infallible. It might be surprising to you, but we all interact with other scientists who are testing our conclusions all the time. But they aren’t the ones misquoting statistics, making infantile allusions to the Nazi’s, ignoring decades of research or getting on their high horse because their obvious inanities are criticised. The way to stop be jeered at is to stop saying dumb things. It’s not that hard. Really. – gavin]

  23. 123

    Thanks Marcus (#108). Unlike the denial bunch I do care about getting things right. The notion of sequestering any reasonable fraction of 26km3 per year of highly compressed CO2 is better than 1,000 times the number but hardly reassuring. David (#121): his figure related to carbon sequestration so deforestation is not entirely relevant. Thanks though for the update: WikiPedia has emissions as 27Gt for burning fossil fuels in 2004, so your numbers illustrate how fast the problem is growing.

  24. 124
    Lawrence Brown says:

    “you are tacitly proclaiming that there should be no debate on AGW itself—no matter what scientific views are put forward by others.
    That does appear to presuppose infallibility on the part of the AGW scientists.”

    We’re all fallible, the pros and the cons.The whole purpose of debate is for each side to present arguments that support its conclusions. In this case scientifally based evidence.Those who accept AGW do so based on the vast weight of evidence supporting it.

  25. 125
    David B. Benson says:

    Philip Machanick (122) — Well, lets just remove all of the excess, plus put back some of what was created before. Using the slower, underwater method of enhanced carbonate formation suggested in

    to remove 50 billion tonnes of CO2 per year will require drilling 100,000 holes ever time the previously drillied rock had fully reacted to form carbonate. Assuming a drilling depth of 3 km into the underwater rock at a cost of about $600+ per meter of drilling costs, that’s about $200 billion each several years. (If I’ve done this properly, ths is highly afordable, even at twice my estimate of the drilling costs.)

  26. 126
    Jim says:


    I know I’m wasting my time, but what the heck.

    I’ve read quite a few of your posts, and likely all of the theoretical bits you and others have posted here over the last year or so. I’ve also read one of Gilbert Plass’s 1956 papers, haven’t gotten to his other work yet. I’ve spent a bit of time with Goody and Yung, Atmospheric Radiation.

    I know you will find this incredible, but I disagree with your take on radiation physics on a very fundamental level. I in fact disagree with the application of radiation transfer physics to the atmosphere altogether.

    As far as I can tell, there is a fundamental error in using a path to describe a state function.

    Radiant emission from a substance in thermal equilibrium is a state function. Plass applied radiation transfer physics, a path function, because it was the hammer he knew how to use from his time calculating neutronics of nuclear piles. It was a poor choice, and has continued since that time.

    Kirchoff’s laws were not developed from observation of gases, or even of semi-transparent substances. They were developed from observation of solids. In fact, a general physics book on the topic will usually refer to emission from surfaces, and scale the emission by surface area. A surface is a physical thing. It is a phase boundary. Surfaces cannot be arbitrarily assigned at various atmospheric heights to partition the atmosphere into layers. Kirchoff’s laws take into account substances in which the options are reflection and absorption of radiation. Transmission changes things considerably.

    IR measurements more or less amount to counting photons that reach the detector. Yes, I am aware that is not the instrumental method, but it is the information we attempt to acquire. The CO2 bending mode is active at 667 cm-1, about 15 microns if you prefer. An IR detector in space simply answers the question of how many photons of that frequency arrive. The measurement is transmittance. It is a net value, and accounts for all physical processes that occur between source and detector. The difference between perceiving an absorption spectrum and perceiving an emission spectrum is simply the background. If the background (source) radiation is in excess of the emission from the sample, then an absorption of radiation will be observed. If the background radiation is less than the emission from the sample, then an emission spectrum will be observed.

    Spectra of the atmosphere show an absorption spectrum because the source (surface of the planet) emits considerably more radiation in the CO2 bands than does CO2 in the atmosphere (sample). If you wish to measure CO2 emission lines, you need to have a weak background source, and pretty good detection limits.

    In general, emission from the planet is measured on the W/m^2 scale. Emission from gases in the atmosphere is measured on a microwatt/cm^2 scale. This provides two orders of magnitude difference in intensity on the y-axis alone. The emission peaks also tend to be sharper, so you’ll probably get another order of magnitude on the x-axis.

    I know that a number of folks watch this site like a hawk, just looking to shoot down some poor uninformed fellow like myself. So, please provide for me any data that supports a claim that CO2 in the atmosphere emits at 15 microns on the same order of magnitude as the planet emits at 15 microns.

    In a model where CO2 simply passes radiation to other CO2 molecules, the atmosphere doesn’t heat up at all, only the CO2 heats. If CO2 collides and dumps heat into N2 and O2, then the atmosphere warms, but the energy of the photon has been distributed. You can either hand off the photon to the next CO2 in the chain, or you can heat the atmosphere. Both can’t happen.

    Back to the difference between path functions and state functions. Radiant emission from a sample in thermal equilibrium is a state function. This is why you can use Stefan’s Law to calculate radiant emission. Substances have a variety of emissivity coefficients, varying from 0 to 1, and substances emit radiation in very different intensities, even when at the same temperature. This is why a thermos bottle is silvered. When calculating the emission from a substance using Stefan’s Law, you just need the proper coefficient and the temperature of the sample. It doesn’t matter if the sample obtained its energy by radiative heating or resistive heating, or whatever else is in play. How the energy got into the system simply doesn’t matter. The sample emits energy based on its own state.

    In the troposphere, as you well know, the gas phase molecules maintain a Boltzmann distribution of states. Nitrogen and oxygen, which are not IR active, maintain a Boltzmann distribution just as easily as CO2. The emission from CO2 occurs based on the Boltzmann distribution of states, the absorbed radiation from the surface serves only to warm the system, providing a slight adjustment to the Boltzmann distribution. Again, it doesn’t matter how the energy got there, it matters that the energy is there, and that the CO2 is in thermal equilibrium. An attempt to tie the CO2 emission back to the original absorption – which is what radiation transfer physics tries to do – is bound to fail.

    Anyway, you can rest assured that this is a product of my own addled brain. I’m not getting a dime from the oil companies or from Senator Inhofe, although it’d be nice.

    Feel free to throw all the jabs you like.

    If anyone out there actually would like to convince me, perhaps in a somewhat constructive fashion, direct me to a measurement that demonstrates that CO2 at 1 atmosphere pressure and 300 K emits energy at 15 microns with the same intensity as a mixture of lanthanide oxides at 300 K.

    By the way, pointing out that the method used accurately replicates the spectra observed isn’t going to be good enough. I am aware that matrices of fitting factors are thrown into those computations, both for the IR active regions of the atmosphere, and separately for the continuum, that clearly cannot come from CO2. It is possible to fit anything with enough parameters. It leaves me in mind of the solar system models with epicycle upon epicycle to keep the earth at the center. That was a good bit of work. If those astronomers had had access to enough computing power, there would have been no need to recalibrate and place the center of the solar system in the sun. They would have been able to very accurately compute planetary positions, albeit in a much more complex fashion. I rather suspect that the application of radiation transfer theory to the greenhouse effect is much the same problem.

    I suppose it is quite confrontational to post here. Believe it or not, that isn’t really my intent. I legitimately disagree with the popular conclusions, and I’ve provided reasons why. I don’t expect any of you to agree with me, but I suppose I’m hoping one of you will drop something valuable that I haven’t seen before – or maybe I’m just a masochist, but at least I’ve thought about the problem and am not blindly believing whatever I hear.

    Have at it.

  27. 127
    Richard Steckis says:


    Hank: “Steckis, you criticize a working scientist above by name speculating that he might be the author of something you maybe recall.
    Don’t you have access to a library?”

    What working scientist did I critcise by name? And what was his name? I do not recall criticising anyone by their actual name.

    And Dhogaza: There are voluminous references to the rapid recovery of forests at Mt. St. Helens. You just “cherry picked” the negatives out of the references I quoted.

  28. 128
    Alexander Mac Donald says:

    Saunders belongs to and speaks for the Conservative movement founded in the fifties by Bill Buckley and the National Review. The movement has become the ideological arm and watchdog of the Republican Party. Her standing within the movement depends on how well she promotes the program of the movement and popularizes its language and ideas, such as they are, and spreads the talking points put out by the party. She should be read, then, as a party hack/flak-catcher. She will not change until the party changes, or the movement, whichever change comes first.

    She is useful to the SFC because she attracts readers, most of them wanting to hear their own thoughts echoed back to them in a more literate form than they themselves can construct, but also many others who find her congenial and provocative, and still others who find her obnoxious and want to take her apart or win her over. Those readers, when added to all the others readers the Chron attracts, make the advertising the paper carries worth the cost to the advertisers, who do not buy that space in order to push ideas and agendae but to push sales of their own products, e.g., shoes. Will Hearst once said to me, “I’m a newspaper man: I sell advertising.” His grandfather would approve. That he might also approve Saunders is another matter, but if she didn’t attract readers who have money to spend on things other than advertising, she would be out of work. The owners and editors, like the good investigative reporters they no longer hire and back up, do still follow the money.

  29. 129
    naught101 says:

    “Here’s another reason why people don’t trust newspapers.”

    What an appropriate first line.

  30. 130
    Richard Steckis says:

    Correction to my post above: for forests read vegetation

  31. 131
    jcbmack says:

    Jim #126, interesting post, some of it is accurate, but you should read further on Kirchoff’s laws for one and more detailed analysis of CO2.

    Here are good reads for you, and I look forward to further discussion with you on each of the issues you post on here and potentially in the future.

    The World of Physical Chemistry
    By Keith James Laidler (you can find it on Scholar)

    Peter Atkins is the best, but this will do for a start. Out of time fore now, but I have some answers for you, I will get to tomorrow, from my head as well:)

  32. 132
    jcbmack says:

    Also this is not quite what you asked for, Jim but this is a good read

    as well, but we will discuss your post further, line for line, I


  33. 133
    jcbmack says:

    One final read before we discuss:

    Fundamentals of Weather and Climate
    By Robin McIlveen (also on scholar)

  34. 134
    dhogaza says:

    There are voluminous references to the rapid recovery of forests at Mt. St. Helens.

    Then you’ll have no problem supplying some that will show that the destroyed old-growth ecosystems on Mt. St. Helens have regenerated in a mere 38 years.

    You just “cherry picked” the negatives out of the references I quoted.

    Well, no, I didn’t cherry pick at all, unless snarfing up the first thing I saw counts as “cherry picking”. I hit the 2nd link you posted (it coming after the first and before the third) and the first four things discussed were: 1) elk meanderings 2) gopher survival 3) fireweed nirvana 4) mountain bluebird and (since they don’t make their own cavities) by implication other cavity nesters benefiting from *dead* trees (snags).

    If you call that cherry picking, well, fine.

  35. 135
    Mark says:

    Jim, #126.

    So you reject the photon nature of light, then?

    Raytracing is impossible.



  36. 136
    dhogaza says:

    What working scientist did I critcise by name? And what was his name? I do not recall criticising anyone by their actual name

    So you don’t remember which scientist(s) made the (apparently accurate) prediction that forest recovery on Mt. St. Helens might take a couple hundred years?

    If you were to find us a cite for that prediction, then we’d have a name, and also an actual black-and-white written statement to check for accuracy in the prediction department. Since you first claimed “forest recovery”, then said “I didn’t mean forest recovery, just regeneration of biological diversity”, it’s really hard to say if the scientist you’re criticizing was wrong or not.

    Also, what basis do you have for imagining that old growth forests on the flanks of Mt. St. Helens would regenerate more rapidly than old clearcuts that weren’t replanted at lower elevations on the Gifford Pinchot?

    Typical tracts of forest in the OR/WA cascades with old growth structural characteristics have an overstory of old trees ranging from about 120 years old to 300 years old depending on elevation, latitude and precipitation.

    Now if you provide us with a quote from a biologist back in 1980 that claims it will be 200 years until we see the first green plant or fireweed blossom, you might be on to something. But “forest regeneration” … a couple hundred years to replace the old growth stands on the flanks of Mt. St. Helens is perfectly reasonable.

  37. 137
    truth says:

    It’s hard to fathom this extreme sensitivity, Gavin—especially when you are the big winners—the ones who are treated with all the deference in the world by most people in the world—– with your work revered and unquestioned by most governments.
    I commented here , because I believed the claims made about the situation in Australia , by two other Australians , were not true.
    From then on, I have been defending myself against charges of inanity, that I’m asinine, infantile, dumb etc, for describing truthfully the lack of debate , and the climate of intimidation that makes it impossible for a prominent politician to even in the smallest way, question the ‘consensus’.
    Are you referring to me when you mention ‘misquoting statistics’?
    I don’t think I’ve quoted any statistics at all.
    When you say the only issues now worthy of debate by anyone, are carbon trading, and carbon taxes etc, not whether or not AGW is a reality, then surely you’re saying that it’s not possible that any other scientists could conceivably have anything to contribute that might alter the alarmist view.
    I haven’t actually been jeered at , at all, by the way—-except here —-it’s hapless politicians who allow the slightest whiff of apparent doubt to creep into anything they say on this subject , who have been on the receiving end of that—and they’re not dumb at all.

    [Response: I’m not sensitive – just tired. The problem is that you are thinking of everything as a monolith – either everything any mainstream scientist says is correct or it is all wrong. The reality is much more subtle – there is much that is beyond reasonable doubt (the human cause of GHG rises, the fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the understanding of the greenhouse effect etc.), and much that is as yet uncertain (regional consequences of the global warming, ice sheet dynamics, interactions of aerosols and clouds etc.). Discussion of the former is boring and pretty much futile since there is no new information, while discussion of the latter is interesting and with lots of new information coming in. The implicit assumption that you are making is that all discussion reduces to worrying about the ‘A’ in AGW – it doesn’t. And note, the ‘A’ stands for anthropogenic, and that is not synonymous with alarmist. – gavin]

  38. 138

    David B. Benson (#125). I don’t have access to PNAS at home but the Science Daily article appears to have its C and CO2 muddled: “4 billion tons of atmospheric carbon a year—a substantial part of the 30 billion sent into the atmosphere by humans”; 30 billion is the figure for CO2, not carbon.

    I don’t know where you get your drilling costs. I am no expert in this but here’s an article putting the cost per metre at more than double yours ($3.8 million for a 2,800-metre-deep well = $1,357 per metre) and the cost per metre must be higher as you go deeper. But let’s take this number since you only want to go to 3,000m, and you will have to at least double your numbers. Then you need to quantify “each several years” and find enough places where the right rock exists near a large body of water.

    Another question: if this will cost around $400-billion a shot as you suggest (as amended by possibly more realistic calculations on the cost of drilling) who will pay for it? The obvious thing is to impose an extra cost on carbon emissions. Let’s take a crude approximation based on the International Energy Agency’s 2006 figure of 12Gt oil-equivalent energy consumption. A m3 of oil is roughly 800kg, so that translates to 15 billion barrels of oil. So $400-billion adds $26 to a barrel of oil (assuming your “each several years” is optimistic and you do this every year). Coal is roughly 5 tonnes per barrel of crude equivalent so that would add about $5 per tonne to coal.

    If your numbers as expanded on here are about right, yes, this is potentially affordable compared with some alternatives.

    But also, you need to consider that if this really works as advertised, it will be a license to consume fossil fuels at the fastest possible rate, so we will exhaust them in a matter of decades, and we’ll need to find alternatives anyway. So why not spend the $400-billion “each several years” on getting those alternatives up and running, and cut out this intermediate step?

    Since you presumably have access to the PNAS paper, could you tell us how they handle the fact that sea water is not principally a CO2 solution in water, but has a lot of other chemicals and living things mixed into it?

  39. 139
    pete best says:

    Re #126, Jim, Your enourmous post seems to be stating something along the lines of debying GHG abilty to trap heat released from the surface of the earth thus denying AGW. Is that the case?

  40. 140
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jim, Your entire thesis seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of blackbody radiation. Think about it. In thermal equilibrium, energy absorbed at 15 microns will equal energy emitted in the same band. It won’t depend on the material or the state of the material. I don’t know your mathematical background, but I would strongly recommend reading the treatment of the subject in Landau and Lifshitz “Statistical Mechanics”. I’m afraid that this is not the sort of misunderstanding that is likely to be cleared up by a response on a blog page. You need to sit down with someone who actually understands this stuff and work through it.

  41. 141

    RE Jim #126 & “I’m not getting a dime from the oil companies or from Senator Inhofe, although it’d be nice.”

    I think this is how it works. The oil companies (and don’t forget coal) and Sen. Inhofe look for persons with the following:

    1. Someone who sounds articulate in science and sounds like they are denying global warming, say on a blog like RealClimate. Perhaps able to bandy about a few esoteric complex equations nobody (except a handful of scientists) understand anyway, but look VERY impressive to laypeople.

    2. Has some letters at the end of their name, like Ph.D… Art History, or whatever. Even DDS will do, or KPN, whatever.

    The oil companies might then bring them on board one of their many oil-funded institutes of climate change denial, perhaps to be a spokesperson.

    For instance, there are even some religious institutes of climate denial — like ACTON INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF RELIGION AND LIBERTY, heavily funded by Exxon — so whenever a religious radio station, TV program (like those on EWTN), or newspaper wants someone to comment on the lack of global warming, they just get a speaker from that institute. See:

    As for Sen. Inhofe, he’s interested in making his list of 400 “scientists” who deny global warming into a list of 401. Not sure if there’s any money in that, but the oil guys might notice, then bring the person into one of their funded institutes.

  42. 142
    Alexander Mac Donald says:

    Re: Mount Saint Helen’s: A look at the Point Reyes National Seashore out near Inverness and the Point might give some impressionistic clarity to recovery issues. The entire area lost its red wood forests to logging by the 1930s. There has been little recovery since then, though a lush thin layer of green, like a protective scab, has covered the area for decades since then. It’s pretty but somewhat bleak in comparison to the lush forests recorded in photographs of the area from the late nineteenth century. Yet logging is almost a benign method of ecostrophe when compared to the forces unleashed on Mount Saint Helen’s.

  43. 143
    Hank Roberts says:

    Jim, rather than take over topic for your discussion of radiation physics — some readers will be very willing to go into extensive detail about that if you invite it — why not put it somewhere it can be found later, and invite people to talk it through with you? Maybe there’s an appropriate thread somewhere.

    Else it’s going to end up where it’s headed — in a topic about fact-checking newspaper columns. Not optimal use of the thread.
    Just sayin’ — part of the art of helping people find things is putting them where people will look.

    Picking the most active current thread on top at RC (or anywhere) is a mistake, if you want your thesis to be paid attention to for more than a week.

  44. 144
    Donald Oats says:

    #122 “truth”: I think it is you now who is being somewhat economical with the boolean complement of false… :-)

    While Andrew Bolt has made his opinions clear concerning AGW, he is by no means nearly a lone voice in the Australian Media. People who do not accept AGW has any merit scientifically are regularly contributing their opinions in newspapers; there are also many journalists who do not accept AGW in part or entirety. Off the top of my head, but in sorted order, are the following journalists: Piers Ackerman, Janet Albrechtsen, Ian Blair, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Michael Duffy, Gerard Henderson, Chris Kenny, Terry McCrann, Christopher Pearson, Dennis Shanahan, Tom Switzer, Peter Walsh, Alan Wood. There are plenty more.

    These journalists pay a lot of attention to broadcasting “the other side of the debate.” To the best of my knowledge however, they don’t show much inclination to *investigate*, they opinionate. Anytime they start showing an investigative interest in the scientific approach towards climate science generally, and the theory of anthropogenic global warming for the current era, will be a good day for journalism.

    Stop Press: The Australian Letters page (Fri 5th Dec) has William Kininmonth, David Evans, and Rod Griffin – not a coincidence, I’m sure.

    [Response: These letters are typical of what I was alluding to. It’s not ‘balance’ to state truisms (such as climate is always changing) as if they are some profound contribution to the ‘debate’. A letter writer’s opinion that the recent warming is because of a shift in the Pacific in the absence of any evidence does not weigh equally with the IPCC report. The proof by assertion that the ‘sun was wot done it’ is not in the least bit convincing. If this is the best that the Australian commentariat can come with, they are rightly being ignored. – gavin]

  45. 145
    David B. Benson says:

    Philip Machanick (138) — Thank you for the cost corrections and the remaining comments!

    Here are two links which should work for you:

    For each pair of holes drilled, the method is supposed to remove one million tonnes of CO2 per year from seawater; I’m no geochemist so cannot explain it. However, it is clear that this process will go on for some time; again I don’t yet have a firm estimate of how many years, but just to guess, suppose the equivalent of ten years at the million tonne rate; that’s ten million tonnes of CO2 removed per pair of boreholes.

    Suppose, because there are so many to be drilled, that each pair costs ten million dollars; the cost is around one dollar per tonne removed. To remove the approximately 40 billion tonnes of emissions each year then requires around $40 billion per year. This keeps the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from going up abour 2 ppm per year. But we want more, we want it to go down. Another $20 billion per year will then presumably cause the concentration to decrease at 1 ppm per year. In about 25 years we will be at Hansen’s 350 ppm.

    He has stated that this is the maximum safe level. I opine that nothing above 300 ppm CO2e will do in the long run. Ok, keep going for another fifty+ years.

  46. 146
    Geoff Beacon says:

    The BBC seems to be fairly well supported on this board. But I have just begun to document the BBC’s reluctance to report climate change seriously. Like not reporting the recent methane plumes in the Arctic when others in the UK did:

    Another item, less weighty, but more telling is this report found on the English section of the BBC website:

    “Mild weather delays Bewick Swans” BBC (News: England) 28 Oct 2008

    The piece makes no reference to climate change but all the external links make this connection. The external links are to The Telegraph, The Times, Channel 4 News, The Independent and Biggleswade News. Even the Sun reported this as a climate change story.

    I think the BBC is particularly prone to Geoff Russell’s criticism(“it’s just your opinion” #1) … unless, of course, it’s one of their copper-bottomed experts!

    As public service broadcasters, I think they have a special responsibility.

  47. 147
    t_p_hamilton says:

    “As far as I can tell, there is a fundamental error in using a path to describe a state function.”

    Actually, this statement is fundamentally in error. The whole point of a state function is that it is path independent. Hence ANY path describes the differences in initial and final states. If you use the actual path taken, that is just gravy, explanation-wise.

  48. 148
    RichardC says:

    142 Alexander said, “logging is almost a benign method of ecostrophe when compared to the forces unleashed on Mount Saint Helen’s.”

    I disagree. Logging takes nutrients away from a region. Volcanos contribute gobs of nutrients. The recovery rate after Mt St Helen was totally unsurprising. Any gardener who has sprayed pesticides or herbicides will tell you that regrowth of a young, weedy biome chock full of insects occurs very fast. The shrill calls of a few ignorant ecophiles, though well-intentioned, were 100% counter-productive. It’s unfortunate that the noisiest in any movement are often blinded by their own zeal. “truth” takes the opposite tack- that a hugely diverse set of weeds and pests is the epitome of biodiversity! Sorry “truth,” but one can’t grow a 400 year old tree in less than 400 years. A sapling or a weed ain’t the same thing.

    My favourite example of unwarranted hype is the spout that millions of cigarette filters are littered each year and a SINGLE filter takes years to decompose. Yep, true, but a million filters will decompose just as fast as one filter. Lies and misdirection are wrong even when the cause is just.

  49. 149
    Hank Roberts says:

    > millions of cigarette filters

    The old “Micronite” type made with asbestos, or the newer ones made with acetate plastic? In either case, volume as well as time matters.

    If you haven’t looked this up at all, you might be able to believe the concern is unwarranted, but “decompose” doesn’t mean “go away” for
    “the number one type of litter—cigarette filters”

    Marine Debris & Plastics: Environmental Concerns, Sources, Impacts and Solutions
    SB Sheavly, KM Register – Journal of Polymers and the Environment, 2007

    You can look this stuff up.

    Logging and vulcanism raise the same issue — both time and condition affect the recovery time.

    Methods for better control of the course and aftermath of both logging and volcanic eruptions are desirable.

  50. 150
    Slioch says:

    #146 Geoff Beacon

    I think your concerns about the BBC are well founded. This from 5 September 2007:

    “The BBC has scrapped plans for Planet Relief, a TV special on climate change.

    The decision comes after executives said it was not the BBC’s job to lead opinion on climate change.”

    “The BBC says it cut the special because audiences prefer factual output on climate change. Environmentalists slammed the decision as “cowardice”.

    “This decision shows a real poverty of understanding among senior BBC executives about the gravity of the situation we face,” said activist and writer Mark Lynas.”