Inconvenient truths, swindles & conspiracies - where science and politics don't mix!


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Saturday 28th April 2007

It is, therefore, the task of the scientific community to get its findings out more clearly to the public, directly and in a more forthright manner in order to prevent the non-science gaining a hold on both sides of the argument."

I thought I'd add in a non-photographic entry this weekend, a weekend that has seen two interesting news items regarding the natural environment here in the UK. Firstly, in terms of the Central England Temperature (CET) measuring-stick, April 2007 has been the warmest since detailed record-keeping began in 1659. OK, so there are still a couple of days to go, but if anything these could push the provisional CET figure of 11.1C upwards! Secondly, a notable earthquake of magnitude 4.3 shook parts of SE England at 0818 on Saturday morning.

Are these two things by any chance related?

One would think not, but think again. After the 2004 tsunami that devastated some areas adjacent to the Indian Ocean, by some strange mechanism tsunamis began to find their way into global warming stories in some sections of the media. Will the Kent Earthquake manage to do the same? Time (and the media) will tell!

Recent months have seen no let-up in the energetic nature of the climate debate, something I have seen plenty of in my voluntary position of moderator in the popular and lively UK Weatherworld Climatology Forum. It's been interesting to observe how people on both sides of this debate approach the issues. A very common "attacking" position is to post a link to a media site - such as BBC news or various UK newspapers - where a climate science story is being aired - and to pull it to bits, thereby shooting the messenger well and truly.

This is quite easy to do in some cases and for this situation to have arisen, the media and the scientific community both have themselves to blame. I'll try to explain the background to my point of view.

What's a peer-reviewed journal?

Developments in any science are published in peer-reviewed journals before finding its way into the general media. There are many such journals, each covering different branches of the sciences. I have had a number of papers published myself - not in climate but in geology and mineralogy. The peer-review procedure is pretty much the same in all disciplines of science and is worthy of description, because non-scientists do not encounter it. Let's just run through how it works, using my experience in mineralogy as an example.

Suppose you are out there doing fieldwork. You find some rocks that are of particular interest. Samples are collected, clearly labelled and bagged. Later, perhaps during the following winter, the samples are cleaned, sectioned, polished and studied under microscopes. Maybe one or two fellow researchers join in with this work. Over a year or two (depending on availability of equipment time), minerals are fully identified and analysed and their textural relationships noted and photographed. By now you know you have something new, a description of which is worthy of publication (you think).

From the notes you have made and the data you have obtained, a rough draft is put together. You then sit with your team-mates and get it honed to a fine degree and submit the draft plus diagrams/images to the journal you hope will publish it.

Some time later you get a letter from that journal stating that your manuscript has gone out to two independent reviewers. You haven't a clue who they are and you waste many hours trying to guess who they might be.

A few months later, you get the reviews back. One reviewer likes it but has made a few suggestions regarding layout and clarity of diagrams. The other has ripped it to bits, saying that it cannot be published without major revision because of blah, blah and blah. You still don't know who these guys are, normally, but heck you'd like to find out! Usually, the more knowledgeable the reviewer the more revision you'll need to do on your manuscript....

The revisions are done - there is no choice - at least it hasn't been rejected out of hand - and six months later your paper appears in print. Looking at it, you realise it is now much more concise than that first draft. Facts are now strictly facts and uncertainties are firmly stated to be just that. The review process has worked properly and you have a nice paper in publication. From start to finish you have been working on that one paper intermittently over four years.

That's how it often is. I've had papers accepted with no revision, had to revise others and have had outright rejection. The latter really hurts but it tends to make you more careful in the future! I've myself passed papers, suggested major revision and rejected others. Makes you feel a bastard to do so, but it is science's quality-control process and to do otherwise for the wrong reasons (e.g. you happen to know one of the authors personally) would be grossly irresponsible, not only to science but to the author in question who needs to know that his skills need honing-up.

The process is not perfect, for sure, and things to get through sometimes that shouldn't, but overall it is a very effective filter. Imagine science without this filter!

Who reads the papers that we write?

The scientific papers that we write are intended to be easily understood by our fellow workers and are produced primarily for that purpose. They are for the common good of our branch of science. A lay person would generally find large parts of them difficult to follow. Even in geology, which is a broad church, if I wrote a paper on a complex hydrothermal mineral assemblage, it is unlikely that a life-long palaeontologist would grasp much of it; conversely I would struggle with a paper on brachiopod evolution in the late Cambrian! That's one reason why each paper normally begins with an abstract - a concise summary of the findings minus all the detailed descriptions and number-crunchings that appear in the body of the paper. It should be written so that a knowledgeable non-specialist in that field can still figure out the key findings.

So, where does the trouble start?

Much of what we do goes on behind the scenes. However, certain aspects of the Earth Sciences - especially climatology - are more mainstream because the findings have the potential to affect people's lives. This is where many scientists run into problems! Getting that honed-down hard science into everyday speak is not easy - there are certain things for which, strictly speaking, only technical words will suffice, for example.

If the results of your work are notable, then your University will quite rightly want the publicity that such things generate. So yes, you will have to find a way of getting that honed-down hard science into everyday speak - a press-release. It'll be like writing your abstract but harder!

Once that press-release is issued to the wide world out there, get ready to duck! Imagine each news editor and sub-editor as a filter which your work passes through. As it does so it gradually becomes less recognisable, depending on the subject material and the ability of the media person dealing with it. Best case is that it appears pretty much as you said it, a bit over-simplified but that's something you can live with. Worst case is distortion or exaggeration in either an agenda-driven or sensationalist way. This can reflect badly on you even though it is not you who's done the distorting!

The basic principles make sense....

As somebody who works in and respects the peer-reviewed scientific environment, I am satisfied that the scientific understanding of our climate, as published in scientific journals, is sound. There exists a warming trend in global temperature. None of the well-understood natural cycles in the Earth's climate are capable of explaining the warming. Greenhouse gases, and especially carbon dioxide, have increased significantly over recent decades. The physics of the so-called Greenhouse Effect - whereby carbon dioxide absorbs infra-red (heat) radiation given off by the surface of the Earth (as a response to solar radiation) is well understood. Increase carbon dioxide and more IR radiation is absorbed instead of it being lost into space. Result - warming.

So we are warming and the process will affect everyone to differing degrees. There will be benefits to some areas and adverse effects in others. For example, it's great if your Spring is warm and sunny with the winter blues banished away quickly. But it's no good if your water supplies, that relied on a glacier as an icy reservoir, have dried up because that glacier has disappeared! Glaciers will disappear if the rate at which they are melting exceeds the rate at which they are being "topped-up" by seasonal snowfall. And in many cases, that is the scenario that is underway. Continued warming will increase that melt-rate, so that, in the absence of a radical increase in wintry precipitation, the process will accelarate.

Climatology is all about trying to understand what makes things like this tick. It looks at past climatic cycles in terms of their duration, characteristics and rate of change from one to another. One argument often posed by people who disagree with the notion of human-induced climate change is to say words to the effect of "there have been many far more radical changes in the past. We've had ice-ages, times warmer than now, etc etc". This is palpable nonsense in the context of the present situation. For large parts of the Earth's existence there were no polar ice-caps at all - so what, one might well ask, given that there were no humans around either!

Benign times....

We have been living in a relatively benign phase of Earth's climate history. During that time, we have developed an extraordinarily sophisticated infrastructure, upon which many of us are heavily or totally dependant. This has been possible because the natural world has permitted it by and large. That infrastructure is, however, fragile with respect to environmental change.

If the environment changes, it is often not the change itself that can cause problems, but the rate of that change. A rapid change in climate affects not only global ecosystems but human civilisation, by damaging that sophisticated infrastructure. Crops in one area might fail due to drought. Another area, heavily populated and low-lying, may lose out due to sea-level rise caused by accelarated polar ice-melt. This may take many decades, but the damage is done nevertheless. Serious stuff, indeed, then - and something that certainly justifies our attention, for the problems arising in future decades will be as much geopolitical as anything else.

The problem in Climatology

The problem in the everyday media treatment of climatology can be summed up in one short sentence:

Everything is blamed on global warming.

Climatologists know that you cannot blame every hurricane, every tornado, on global warming. Such adverse events have always occurred. It is important to remember that, and also to understand that regional weather patterns are complex things to forecast ordinarily, even without the warming factor. A good example is to be had in the case of hurricanes.

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was pretty extreme in terms of numbers of storms generated: 2006 in comparison was quiet, despite being forecast to be severe. What happened was that an El Nino rather suddenly developed - El Nino years are not major hurricane years, because the synoptic patterns that result create too much wind-shear aloft in the Caribbean and Atlantic, that in turn discouraging tropical disturbances from forming into full-blown hurricanes.

Global warming sceptics leapt joyously on the lack of hurricanes in 2006, citing it as "proof" that they were right after all. This is often the base level at which the public debate operates, based not on good science but on a set of prejudices, politicical leanings and a few "facts" gleaned from various sections of the media.
It is, therefore, the task of the scientific community to get its findings out more clearly to the public, directly and in a more forthright manner in order to prevent the non-science gaining a hold on both sides of the argument.

In the case of hurricanes, warming will increase sea surface temperatures and the higher these temperature are, the more "fuel" will be available to the organised thunderstorm clusters that drift out in the Atlantic from western Africa on a regular basis during the season. So long as a low-shear environment is available, more frequent and stronger hurricanes may be expected, with El Nino years punctuating developments periodically. That's put simplistically but it's essentially correct, whilst not blaming every adverse weather event on global warming, something which the media is rather good at, to our danger.

Why danger? Because the evidence I am seeing is that people are getting fed up of having global warming rammed down their throats. It's serious, but let's discuss it rationally for heaven's sake, and let's have the scientists themselves being heard, instead of seeing their press-releases being converted into some third-hand sensationalist copy. Once people reach saturation-point they switch off, and to allow that to happen would be grossly irresponsible. A lot of the problems likely to be experienced as a result of climate change can be coped with positively providing a commonsense approach is taken from an early stage. What's the alternative?

The alternative is that we continue to sensationalise the debate. We are driven, according to our opinions, by mainstream material such as productions like "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Great Global Warming Swindle". In my view, if you will accept it, neither have done much more than further polarise the debate, leading to people stating we're all doomed or that it's all a global conspiracy in order to raise more taxes depending on which pole they occupy, neither of which are in the remotest bit realistic!

This is why one may encounter media stories on climate change that manage to bring in tsunamis, and it's high time some realism was brought back into this topic. The scientific community must take a stronger lead on this, before increasing numbers of people DO become switched-off to it all, for that really could prove disastrous.


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