RealClimate logo


Filed under: — gavin @ 16 February 2010

It won’t have escaped many of our readers’ notice that there has been what can only be described as a media frenzy (mostly in the UK) with regards to climate change in recent weeks. The coverage has contained more bad reporting, misrepresentation and confusion on the subject than we have seen in such a short time anywhere. While the UK newspaper scene is uniquely competitive (especially compared to the US with over half a dozen national dailies selling in the same market), and historically there have been equally frenzied bouts of mis-reporting in the past on topics as diverse as pit bulls, vaccines and child abductions, there is something new in this mess that is worth discussing. And that has been a huge shift in the Overton window for climate change.

In any public discussion there are bounds which people who want to be thought of as having respectable ideas tend to stay between. This is most easily seen in health care debates. In the US, promotion of a National Health Service as in the UK or a single-payer system as in Canada is so far outside the bounds of normal health care politics, that these options are only ever brought up by ‘cranks’ (sigh). Meanwhile in the UK, discussions of health care delivery solutions outside of the NHS framework are never heard in the mainstream media. This limit on scope of the public debate has been called the Overton window.

The window does not have to remain static. Pressure groups and politicians can try and shift the bounds deliberately, or sometimes they are shifted by events. That seems to have been the case in the climate discussion. Prior to the email hack at CRU there had long been a pretty widespread avoidance of ‘global warming is a hoax’ proponents in serious discussions on the subject. The sceptics that were interviewed tended to be the slightly more sensible kind – people who did actually realise that CO2 was a greenhouse gas for instance. But the GW hoaxers were generally derided, or used as punchlines for jokes. This is not because they didn’t exist and weren’t continually making baseless accusations against scientists (they did and they were), but rather that their claims were self-evidently ridiculous and therefore not worth airing.

However, since the emails were released, and despite the fact that there is no evidence within them to support any of these claims of fraud and fabrication, the UK media has opened itself so wide to the spectrum of thought on climate that the GW hoaxers have now suddenly find themselves well within the mainstream. Nothing has changed the self-evidently ridiculousness of their arguments, but their presence at the media table has meant that the more reasonable critics seem far more centrist than they did a few months ago.

A few examples: Monckton being quoted as a ‘prominent climate sceptic’ on the front page of the New York Times this week (Wow!); The Guardian digging up baseless fraud accusations against a scientist at SUNY that had already been investigated and dismissed; The Sunday Times ignoring experts telling them the IPCC was right in favor of the anti-IPCC meme of the day; The Daily Mail making up quotes that fit their GW hoaxer narrative; The Daily Express breathlessly proclaiming the whole thing a ‘climate con’; The Sunday Times (again) dredging up unfounded accusations of corruption in the surface temperature data sets. All of these stories are based on the worst kind of oft-rebunked nonsense and they serve to make the more subtle kind of scepticism pushed by Lomborg et al seem almost erudite.

Perhaps this is driven by editors demanding that reporters come up with something new (to them) that fits into an anti-climate science theme that they are attempting to stoke. Or perhaps it is driven by the journalists desperate to maintain their scoop by pretending to their editors that this nonsense hasn’t been debunked a hundred times already? Who knows? All of these bad decisions are made easier when all of the actually sensible people, or people who know anything about the subject at all, are being assailed on all sides, and aren’t necessarily keen to find the time to explain, once again, that yes, the world is warming.

So far, so stupid. But even more concerning is the reaction from outside the UK media bubble. Two relatively prominent and respected US commentators – Curtis Brainard at CJR and Tom Yulsman in Colorado – have both bemoaned the fact that the US media (unusually perhaps) has not followed pell-mell into the fact-free abyss of their UK counterparts. Their point apparently seems to be that since much news print is being devoted to a story somewhere, then that story must be worth following. Indeed, since the substance to any particularly story is apparently proportional to the coverage, by not following the UK bandwagon, US journalists are missing a big story. Yulsman blames the lack of environmental beat reporters for lack of coverage in the US, but since most of the damage and bad reporting on this is from clueless and partisan news desk reporters in the UK, I actually expect that it is the environmental beat reporters’ prior experience with the forces of disinformation that prevents the contagion crossing the pond. To be sure, reporters should be able and willing (and encouraged) to write stories about anything to do with climate science and its institutions – but that kind of reporting is something very different from regurgitating disinformation, or repeating baseless accusations as fact.

So what is likely to happen now? As the various panels and reports on the CRU affair conclude, it is highly likely (almost certain in fact) that no-one will conclude that there has been any fraud, fabrication or scientific misconduct (since there hasn’t been). Eventually, people will realise (again) that the GW hoaxers are indeed cranks, and the mainstream window on their rants will close. In the meantime, huge amounts of misinformation, sprinkled liberally with plenty of disinformation, will be spread and public understanding on the issue will likely decline. As the history of the topic has shown, public attention to climate change comes and goes and this is likely to be seen as the latest bump on that ride.

Eppure si riscalda.

1,168 Responses to “Whatevergate”

  1. 1151
    Completely Fed Up says:

    Arnold, you nailed it.

    It’s also the reason why those who repeat zombie arguments are given short shrift to educate themselves.

  2. 1152
    Completely Fed Up says:

    “Don’t kill the messenger, fix the source.

    Comment by John Peter”

    But killing an assassin is fine, the assassin is trying to kill the source because interests won’t let it survive.

  3. 1153
    Rod B says:

    Arnold Smith (1150), but, IMO, there are significant questions about the science that have not been settled and justify a skeptic response, particularly in the cost of rectifying the proposed problem. OTOH, there are in fact many of my fellow skeptics who do raise objections time and again with things that are not in major scientific dispute or at least not big deals; I understand the frustration with that. Though it is not too dissimilar from the AGWers who present uncertainties as absolute dogma.

  4. 1154
    Charlie Chutney says:

    Following my correspondence on the “whatevergate” thread above, it was clear that my motives were being misunderstood and I decided that we had gone about as far as was helpful to anyone and that I would withdraw.

    However, an opportunity has arisen to make some progress if anyone is interested n persevering with me.

    As has been established, I do read the “sceptic” blogs as well as Realclimate and the press, etc (for those of you that did not follow the previous thread, I am non-scientific, non-statistical (other than basics) and, I think, generally speaking, reasonably intelligent).

    Many regulars on Realclimate are understandably frustrated when a non scientist assesses data that they have read and then comes to a “sceptical” conclusion. This clearly leaves me, and others, open to the charge that we ignore the dedicated work of thousands of highly qualified scientists in favour of the viewpoints of the likes of “loonies” such as Monckton and Plimer as well as “irritant deniers” like McIntrye and Watts (I hope the you at least accept these latter two “believe” that there are issues and are not doing what they do as a result of financial interests i.e. they may be wrong – but they are genuinely committed).

    This morning, there is a post on the WUWT site entitled “The logarithmic effect of CO2”. I don’t know who David Archibald (the author) is, nor do I know who Willis Eschenbach is (previous work by him is referred to in the post).

    To the layman (like me), this post appears to be “scientific” in its approach and follows a logical path that I can follow towards refuting the “increasing man made CO2 = we are in big trouble” hypothesis. I assume, given that it has appeared as a “guest post” that Mr Watts and/or his moderators have given the article enough credence (or tacit support) to warrant a “guest post” slot. I assume if they thought it was rubbish or completely flawed they would have kept as a comment somewhere – rather than a post.

    I assume, most RealClimate contributors would refute the article in its entirety?

    I also assume that there must be “claims” or “facts” that are stated in the article that you would argue are just plain wrong.

    Is it possible for Realclimate contributors to read the post and let me know which “claims” and “facts” would be, I assume, disputed/refuted.

    Please accept this in the manner it is intended – i.e. a genuine attempt to understand why/how the “blogosphere camps” are so far apart. Please remember that you are replying to a non scientist.

    Thanks in anticipation

    [Response: Actually, everyone accepts that CO2 has a logarithmic effect (which is why we always talk about the effect of doubling of CO2, rather than a change in temperature per ppm). The fact that the impact of CO2 that is currently in the atmosphere is less than what a doubling of that would be is a) well known, and b) irrelevant. Roughly speaking, removing all the CO2 has a radiative forcing of -28 W/m2 (~ -35 W/m2 for all the trace GHGs) compared to around +4 W/m2 for a doubling. Whether there is a problem in the future depends on whether the temperature rise to that 4W/m2 is significant (which it is very likely to be), not whether removing all the CO2 would give a (much larger) cooling. – gavin]

  5. 1155
    Charlie Chutney says:

    Ref 054 Gavin’s esponse

    Thank you Gavin but, as was inevitable I fear – you lost me! Which highlights the problem for the likes of me (and maybe other reasonably intelligent sceptics).

    The post follows mostly “lay” language/logic (but makes “scientific” statements that I am not in a position to question). Where does RealClimate disagree with the statements, logic and conclusions?

    [Response: The post in question takes a real phenomena, writes as if this is some new discovery that the skeptics have uncovered, implies that mainstream science is in denial of this obvious fact and then uses a nonsense logical argument to imply that this fact means that we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about CO2. The logical nonsense is perhaps more clearly seen in this analogy: if there was no gravity then no planets could exist, therefore the fact that Jupiter has stronger gravity than Earth can have no significant effect. It’s simply a non-sequitor – there is nothing in the first claim that has any information as to the conclusion. – gavin]

  6. 1156
    Charlie Chutney says:

    I still haven’t got it but don’t worry, we’ll leave it there.

  7. 1157
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Charlie Chutney,
    Regarding the logarithmic effect of CO2. As Gavin says, it’s well known and in all the models. Did you take calculus? If you did, then you know that the integral of ln(x) from 0 to infinity is still divergent.

    All the evidence says that if you double CO2, you get a temperature rise around 3 degrees. That 3 degrees is enough to cause some pretty severe effects. Double it again, and you have 6 degrees of warming–and that would likely be catastrophic.

    The thing about “micro” Watts’ site is that it is pretty much devoid of science. It is pretty much a wasteland. McI’s site is better, but you have to wonder about someone who is still obsessed with a 1998 paper.

    I would suggest comparing the quality of what you get there to what you get here. I am hoping you are a judicious enough consumer to see the difference.

  8. 1158
    Hank Roberts says:

    Charlie, you still think you’re a skeptic, but you’re still not looking this stuff up for yourself, which a skeptic should learn to do.

    You can confirm what Gavin told you.

    Be a skeptic, without getting out of your chair:

    Take each claim (sentence or phrase) in the post at WUWT.
    Paste it into the Google and the Google Scholar search boxes.
    (You do know how to find Scholar by now? Ask if you don’t know.)

    Compare the results. (This shows you which claims are real big denial points but not found in the science journals, compare and contrast).

  9. 1159

    Charlie, I think the “sleight of hand” in the post you cite is the unsupported assertion that CO2 is responsible for 10% of the forcing. Estimates vary some, IIRC, but this is very unlikely to be correct. If it’s not, the rest of their discussion falls apart.

    Moreover, I don’t think that the initial Modtran graph from Eschenbach is consistent with that claim.

    A layman’s two cents.

  10. 1160
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ray asks a key question for almost any science these days:

    > Did you take calculus?

    As one of those who, for a MA in science, stumbled and clambered through elementary graduate level calculus and got the feel* of it and understood the need for it, but only barely, this is a tough one. Spencer Weart (first link under Science) does the best job I know of helping folks like me with the need to understand how it works.

    * When you’re sitting on one of several trains on parallel tracks, and all the trains are occasionally getting bumped as cars are added or removed, and all of a sudden what you see out your window starts to move off to one side at increasing speed, and you for the moment can’t tell whether it’s you moving or something else, that’s calculus. YourMathematicsMayVary of course.

  11. 1161
    Marcus says:

    Charlie Chutney: Specific problems with the WattsUp post:

    Comparing degrees per 20 ppm to cumulative degrees in a plot is apples and oranges and highly misleading and wrong.

    Assuming that CO2 is only 10% of present forcing (rather than 9 to 26% depending on how one calculates it), and rounding down the total greenhouse effect from 33 to 30 starts the post off on the wrong foot by probably a factor of two or so.

    It isn’t clear to me that the integral of the forcing has been done properly: CO2 isn’t logarithmic over the entire range, so how the bit from 0 to 100 ppm is done is important.

    Red flag: the Archibald approach doesn’t match the physics based approach: 3.7 W/m2 (which comes from doubling CO2), using the very rough T to the 4th approximation, should yield around a degree C of warming. If Archibald’s approach yields a different number, then the question is why, and which approach is better (though after correcting for the CO2 percent of total and the other things I mentioned, I bet these will be closer).

    Finally, not recognizing that there are feedbacks: if the above points are done right, one would expect that the integral of “expected IPCC warming” would be somewhere between 2 to 6 times the integral of “CO2-only warming from doubling” (where the CO2-only warming should be around 1 degree). And, contrary to Archibald’s assertions in the comments, the IPCC does not have “fairies” that only act after CO2 exceeds preindustrial levels: the climate sensitivity is in fact in part derived from looking at how much additional warming should be coming from increased greenhouse gases given that the increased albedo from ice sheets can only explain part of the why the world gets so cold during ice ages.


  12. 1162
    Jerry Steffens says:

    Charlie Chutney:

    The first graph in the WUWT post is more-or-less correct; it shows that the amount of CO2 that must be added to have a significant effect increases as the concentration of CO2 increases and that a doubling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels reduces the outgoing radiative flux by about 4 watts per square meter. The term “forcing” however, is misused. What is actually plotted is the imbalance in the radiative flux that would develop if one started out with no greenhouse gases and then suddenly dumped the entire current inventory of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This is an irrelevant quantity. What is really relevant is the CHANGE in the radiative flux that would occur if the CURRENT atmospheric load of CO2 were changed. [An analogy: If you had beachfront property and a storm was moving in, you would be concerned about the fact that the water level is predicted to rise 10 feet from its current level, not the interesting but totally irrelevant fact that the ocean is 11km deep at its deepest point.]

    In the second graph, the vertical axis has been deliberately altered to make the radiative forcing due to a CO2 doubling look less important. This is done by placing the zero point far below the part of the graph
    that is actually relevant. To go back to the analogy in the first paragraph, this would be akin to receiving a forecast that the ocean near your property is rising from 33, 000 ft. above the abyss to 33, 010 feet, a mere 0.03%! (Clearly, nothing to worry about!)

  13. 1163
    Charlie Chutney says:

    Ref my comment (Charlie Chutney) at 154 and the subsequent responses.

    In summary, I guess that I have now learned enough to know that I am not clever enough (or educated enough) to follow the “arguments” or “logic” of many of the scientific debates. As an example, I am unable to follow many of the explanations shown above.

    With respect to Ray’s comments about calculus, I did do calculus to a reasonable level – but I can’t do it anymore.

    One commenter (not Ray) above made a remark decrying the quality of education systems that turns out people like me. At the risk of being confrontational, this statement lacks a basic understanding of the range of human abilities. Notwithstanding the nature versus nurture argument, it must be accepted that many human abilities are purely a result of genetics or luck or something. The implied criticism that someone is a lesser being because they are not as “mathmatically intelligent” as someone else is to demonstrate ignorance of a different kind. Intellectual elitism is fine – in the same way as the physical elitism of the Olympics. But the Olympic medalists are not better human beings as a result of their talent or work – they just happen to be able to run faster, be stronger, jump higher, throw longer, etc.

    One contributor made such comments and clearly measures an individual’s worth mainly on the basis of their academic brain power. Other human attributes such as physical ability and skill, creativity (artistic or otherwise), empathy, generousness, guile, craft, etc are, it would appear, deemed to be lesser qualties.

    The problem that Realclimate has to deal with is that the vast majority of people on planet earth are not endowed with the intellectual capacity of many of your contributors.

    We can’t follow the science and some of us think enough about our abilities and experience to try and make judgements based upon our limited capabilities.

    This means that people like me look at the big stuff and try and assess and make judgements. So the dreaded “headlines” get a disproportionate amount of consideration.

    Are gloal temperatures actually in runaway mode at present? It doesn’t look like it or feel like it.

    Is the Arctic demonstrating year after year ice loss that is likely to result in an ice free summer in the relatively near future? I judge not.

    Is the Antarctic melting fast and likely to contribure to huge increase in sea levels in any timescales that are relevant to the next couple of generations? It appears not.

    Is the UK experiencing warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers? Sadly not.

    Is snowfall in many parts of the USA, UK and Europe a dissappearing “novelty”? It would appear not.

    Please lets not start the whole debate again. The highlights noted above are offered merely to demonstrate my (and many others) lack of knowledge of the background behind each point.

    – which is the problem I guess.

  14. 1164
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Charlie Chutney,
    The problem is not your intellectual capacity. The problem is information asymmetry. I have no doubt that if you were willing to devote a year or two of spare time to the task, you could follow the science pretty well. You would find plenty of folks (myself included) willing to help you out.

    The thing is, I realize, that you are busy. Business makes demands and we all have families. So, unfortunately, despite your skeptical nature, you are probably going to have to rely on authorities. The question is which authorities are you going to rely on. I would, however, suggest that you can at least familiarize yourself with what the science really says rather than relying on “common-sense” that doesn’t reflect the science accurately.

    You ask: “Are gloal temperatures actually in runaway mode at present?”

    That’s not what the science predicts. Rather, it predicts fluctuations about a rising trend–like stock prices in a bull market.

    And yes, the Arctic is losing ice quite steadily. Whether this results in a catastrophic collapse in the near future is not really the issue. Ice loss changes the albedo of the Arctic and serves as a positive feedback precisely when it can absorb the most energy. An ice-free Arctic is mostly symbolic. What matters for the science is an increasing positive feedback.

    Also, parts of the Antarctic are melting quite quickly–we’re seeing ice sheets breaking up in an unprecedented way. Moreover, the cryosphere is precisely where we have among the greatest uncertainties. We’ve lost 2 trillion tons of ice in 5 years. I don’t think we can dismiss this risk.

    And I hate to offend your British pride, but detailed predictions for the British Isles fall into the realm of regional effects. That’s a work in progress, but I wouldn’t expect huge changes in weather immediately. You might see bigger impulses of rain more infrequently.

    And Winters will still be cold for the foreseeable future, so you’ll still get snow–occasionally rather a lot of it.

    Here is what I consider to be the real threat, Charlie. I am concerned that climate change will cause general decrease in global ecological health and productive capacity even as we are trying to support 9-10 billion people on the planet. There is a lot of research (on oceans, agriculture, water resources, aquifers, etc) that suggests this is quite a credible scenario. An Earth with a billion people might well be able to adapt to moderate climate change (<3 degrees temperature rise). An Earth with 10 billion people might be badly damaged. So, that is the threat I would suggest that you look into.

  15. 1165
    Charlie Chutney says:

    Ref 164 Ray

    Ray, you have the patience of a saint. Thank you. You read and uderstood what I was saying and responded accordingly and appropriately.

    I don’t know whether analogies are appropriate but I need a “Damascus” moment.

    Do you know of any work by scientists that you repect but whom fall into the “not yet convinced but getting there” camp?

    I am going to do more study and see where that takes me.



  16. 1166
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Well, there’s my father-in-law… Look, this stuff isn’t easy. I have a PhD in physics and it took me a couple of years of off and on effort before I really felt I understood things.

    My father-in-law falls into the category of a very smart PhD scientist who realizes that the potential consequences are indeed severe and that mitigating them is going to be a serious task for at least a generation and possibly two. As such, he wants to make sure every possible angle is nailed down. He’s about where I was maybe 5-6 years ago This isn’t his field of expertise. It is a very interdisciplinary field that demands that you look at a lot of different scientific evidence. So it takes time.

    You are starting off with less of a science/math background. You’re also busy. It will likely take you a bit longer and you might have to just learn enough to decide who you find credible.

    Among scientists who have become familiar with the evidence, there are not a lot of skeptics. Among scientists regularly publishing in climate science, 97% say we’re warming the planet. Even Richard Lindzen, John Christy and Roy Spencer admit that. They are just convinced that it’s a lot less that the vast majority of scientists. Unfortunately for all of us, the papers that purport to demonstrate a low CO2 sensitivity just don’t hold up under scrutiny. They involve cherry-picked data, unorthodox analyses, etc. that just don’t yield robust results that stand up to scrutiny.

    However, among experts (e.g. real climate scientists) and those amateurs like me that try to follow along, you will find real diversity of opinion on many issues. How will climate change affect hurricanes? How will the cryosphere respond. How much will sea levels rise? How much warming are we really in for when all is said and done? The consensus is that there’s enough to be concerned about. The question is how screwed we are.

    I’ll look around and see if I can find anyone who fits the “true skeptic” bill. In the mean time, if you have a question…Dude, ask! You know my position in the debate. I think you know that I will not consciously lead you astray. I’m also more than happy to help folks out. It helps me express my thoughts more clearly in any case, whether it convinces you of anything or not.

  17. 1167
  18. 1168
    Hank Roberts says:

    Charlie, this part of your description fits me quite well:

    > … not endowed with the intellectual capacity of many [RC] contributors.
    > can’t follow the science …
    > try and make judgements based upon … limited capabilities.
    > look at the big stuff and try and assess and make judgements.

    The “big stuff” isn’t secondhand news sources and blogs, though.
    The big stuff is described at — mostly very readable.
    It points to and discusses the relevant science, done worldwide.

    Much ‘news’ and blogging is copypasted repetition of mistakes.
    You usually can understand the abstracts better than the newspaper writer did, and _far_ better than the guy who made up the headline on the story.

    And you can use Scholar and check without even leaving your chair.