Sunday, September 28, 2008

Going over the top in the `climate war'

A recent BBC series showed how dubious scientific conclusions are weapons in the politicised debate over global warming

`Anyone who thinks global warming has stopped has their head in the sand. The evidence is clear - the long-term trend in global temperatures is rising, and humans are largely responsible for this rise.' (1) This emphatic statement from the UK Met Office yesterday is just the latest shot in the `climate war'. But in truth, the polarised and highly politicised nature of the current discussion on global warming features plenty of people on both sides with their heads firmly buried, using `science' to disguise the real debate about the future political and economic direction of society.

This was neatly illustrated by a recent BBC TV series, Earth: The Climate Wars, which ended on Sunday. Last week's episode, entitled `Fightback' was a particularly one-sided attempt to undermine the critics of the orthodox position on global warming.

Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University, introduced last week's instalment with the words: `Global warming - the defining challenge of the twenty-first century.' The programme examined the arguments made by the two putative `sides' in the global warming debate, to show `how [the sceptic's] positions have changed over time'. But Stewart misconstrued scepticism of the idea that `global warming is the defining issue of our time' with scepticism of climate research. In this story, `the scientists' occupied one camp (situated conveniently on the moral high ground) and the bad-minded, politically and financially motivated sceptics the other. But there was no nuance, no depth and no justice done to the debate in this unsophisticated tale, and it did nothing to help the audience understand the science.

`At the start of the 1990s it seemed the world was united', Stewart told us. World leaders were gathered at the Rio Summit to sign up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the instrument that would pave the way for the Kyoto Protocol. He recalled the excitement felt by researchers at the prospect of the world being united by concern for the environment. `Even George Bush [Senior] was there. But the consensus didn't last.' Sceptics, it seems, are responsible, not just for the imminent end of the world, but also for corroding global unity.

Stewart's intention was to show that `the scientific consensus' existed prior to international agreements to prevent climate change. But the basis of the UNFCCC was not a consensus about scientific facts. It could not have been, because scientific facts about human influence on the climate did not exist in 1992, as is revealed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) First Assessment Report in 1990, which concluded that `The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect from observations is not likely for a decade or more.' Even the second IPCC assessment report in 1995 did not provide the world with the certainty that Stewart claims: `Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors.' (2)

Instead of consensus and certainty, the UNFCCC was driven by the precautionary principle. Principle 15 of the Rio declaration states: `In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'

Omitting the role of the precautionary principle creates the idea that scientists have always known that industrial activity caused global warming. So, with the benefit of hindsight, Stewart could lump various objections to the interpretation of controversial evidence which existed at the time into one `sceptic' category. Not according to the scientific substance of the argument, but according to whether the argument was later vindicated; not by the consistency of the argument with reality, but whether or not it `supported' the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

In 1992, the data simply wasn't available to conclude with any great confidence that global warming was happening. But by the logic of Stewart's argument, as long as you were right about global warming being a `fact' at that time - even if that meant in reality you were wrongly interpreting the evidence available - you were a `scientist'. But, if you were right about the unreliability of data in 1992, then you were wrong in 2001, because you were a `sceptic'. If this were just a debate within an academic discipline, such challenges would not have any major significance outside of it. But Stewart, like many others, takes routine and isolated differences of scientific opinion, and groups them to imbue them with political significance.

A warming world?

The first scientific debate Stewart presented concerned the reliability of data generated by compiling the records of tens of thousands of surface-based weather stations. Sceptics had argued that these installations were too sparsely distributed and data from them had been contaminated by urbanisation over the twentieth century. Stewart demonstrated that this is indeed a problem. He used the example of the temperature at Las Vegas Airport - home to a monitoring station and heavily urbanised since it was originally set up - and compared it with the temperature outside the city limits, which was markedly cooler. This suggests that making comparisons over time using data from many such stations, where the local environment has changed, may result in over-stating global warming.

The sceptics' argument was seemingly corroborated in the 1990s by satellite data that showed a slight cooling trend over the 1980s. Ten years later, it turned out that the satellite data had been flawed, Stewart told us. The satellite's orbits had been drifting downward, and the data they had produced improperly compiled. A correction to the data revealed a warming trend. `The sceptics had to admit the world was warming', said Stewart.

But here again, we see an artefact of the retrospective polarisation of the `climate wars'. The truth was that both `sides' were wrong while they had invested their confidence either in the surface station data or the satellite data; both sets of data were `wrong' - Stewart had just demonstrated it himself. But the nuances of the debate don't interest Stewart. `The scientists' are vindicated by any evidence which shows that `the earth is warming', regardless of its quality. The sceptics, on the other hand, are not vindicated for having pointed out that the surface station record was questionable.

The not-so jolly `hockey stick'

Stewart then examined the sceptic claim that an episode in Earth's history known as the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) shows that current temperatures are not unprecedented in recent geological history. This was countered by climate researcher Michael Mann, who reconstructed past temperatures where no instrument data were available. By analysing `proxies', such as tree-ring width, ice cores, and coral reefs, he produced a graph which apparently revealed that the MWP was not a global phenomenon, and showed current temperatures to be in excess of anything in the previous millennium.

`Sceptics hated it' announced Stewart. Indeed they did. Mann's study remains highly controversial for good reasons. But Stewart gave no time to explaining the objection to these reconstructions, other than to characterise them as `personal attacks' against Mann. The graphic had been the centrepiece of the IPCC's 2001 Third Assessment Report, used to demonstrate the unequivocal influence of human activity on the climate.

Yet perhaps one of the reasons it was so prominent - in spite of criticism - is that Mann himself was a lead author on the chapter which featured it (3). The IPCC is understood to be a meta-review of the available literature on climate change, but allowing authors to review their own work represents something of a departure from the scientific process. In 2007, following continued criticism of Mann's method, the IPCC were far more circumspect about the value of such reconstructions. Where Stewart presented these reconstructions as `proof' of todays high temperatures, the IPCC give the statement that `twentieth century was the warmest in at least the past [1,300 years]' just 66 per cent confidence (4).

Sceptical `guns for hire'

It is only Stewart's binary treatment of the issue into true and false and `scientists'/'sceptics' that allowed him to reach his conclusion: `There are a lot of people who don't want global warming to be true', he tells us. `Cutting back on greenhouse gases threatens the freedom of companies to go about their business.' According to Stewart, companies used the media to emphasise the uncertainties in climate science for their own ends - profit - a cause and strategy taken up by the Bush administration.

This is an almost verbatim copy of an argument put forward by a prominent climate change advocate and science historian at the University of California, San Diego, Naomi Oreskes. She had claimed that the `climate change denial' movement comprised the same individuals and network of organisations that had been instrumental in denying the link between smoking and cancer (5). By emphasising doubt and uncertainty in the claims of honest and decent scientists, Oreskes claims, `the tobacco strategy' aimed to influence public opinion to secure the interests of oil and tobacco companies, and the political Right. It should be no surprise then, that Naomi Oreskes was credited on the first episode of the series.

Stewart's and Oreskes' conspiracy theories depend on reducing scientific arguments to meaningless factoids, and casting the debate as one between goodies and baddies. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the film's closing moments. In order to demonstrate that `the sceptics' had changed their arguments in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, the film used footage from the Manhattan Conference on Climate Change earlier this year, a meeting that featured a large number of sceptical writers and researchers.

`For years, climatologist Pat Michaels has been one of the most vocal sceptics. And yet, today, he's in surprising agreement with the advocates of global warming', said Stewart. Michaels is then shown giving his talk, saying `global warming is real, and in the second half of the twentieth century, humans had something to do with it'. But there is nothing surprising about Michael's apparent turnaround, because it isn't one. A 2002 article in the Journal of Climatic Research, authored by Michaels et al argued for a revision of the IPCC's projections for the year 2100. Instead of saying that there would be no warming, the paper concluded that rises of `of 1.0 to 3.0 degrees Celsius, with a central value that averages 1.8 degrees Celsius' were more likely than the IPCC's range of 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius (6). Hardly climate change denial.

What could have been an interesting film was instead a fiction. It attached fictional arguments to fictional interests to legitimise the politicisation of the debate - exactly what it accused the sceptics of. Rather than concentrating on the arguments that have actually been made, Stewart invented the sceptic's argument to turn climate science into an arena for an exhausted political argument for `change' that has failed to engage the public.

The real `climate war' is between those who do not believe that our future is determined by the weather and those who think that `climate change is the defining challenge of our time' and define themselves - and everybody else - accordingly. Don't expect a documentary film about it any time soon.


BBC investigated after peer says climate change programme was biased 'one-sided polemic'

The BBC is being investigated by television watchdogs after a leading climate change sceptic claimed his views were deliberately misrepresented. Lord Monckton, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, says he was made to look like a `potty peer' on a TV programme that `was a one-sided polemic for the new religion of global warming'.

Earth: The Climate Wars, which was broadcast on BBC 2, was billed as a definitive guide to the history of global warming, including arguments for and against. During the series, Dr Iain Stewart, a geologist, interviewed leading climate change sceptics, including Lord Monckton. But the peer complained to Ofcom that the broadcast had been unfairly edited.

`I very much hope Ofcom will do something about this,' he said yesterday. `The BBC very gravely misrepresented me and several others, as well as the science behind our argument. It is a breach of its code of conduct. `I was interviewed for 90 minutes and all my views were backed up by sound scientific data, but this was all omitted. They made it sound as if these were just my personal views, as if I was some potty peer. It was caddish of them.'

Ofcom confirmed it was looking into a `fairness complaint' about the documentary. A BBC spokesman said: `We stand by the programme.'

Lord Monckton, 56, a former journalist and Cambridge graduate, says scientific data shows the world is cooler today than in the Middle Ages. He appeared alongside other sceptics including distinguished Florida-based meteorologist Professor Fred Singer, John Christy, a climate change expert and adviser to the U.S. government and the climatologist Dr Patrick Michaels, of the University of Virginia. All their interviews, he claims, were heavily cut so that they appeared as personal views.

`We do not dispute that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but we do dispute its effects', he said. `The data shows that 2008 is the same temperature as 1980 and that the effects of these changes in the atmosphere are not negative but more likely to be beneficial.'

Lord Monckton played a key role in a legal challenge heard in the High Court in October 2007 in an effort to prevent Al Gore's film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, from being shown in English schools.


GAO Faults 'Credibility' Of CO2-Offset Market

The growing U.S. market for carbon offsets -- vouchers that let companies and individuals project an environmentally friendly image by paying others to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions -- is so opaque and loosely regulated that it offers consumers "limited assurance of credibility," according to a federal audit. The report, expected to be published on Friday, stops short of recommending new regulations. But it suggests members of Congress think carefully before letting companies use offsets as a means of complying with legislation to control carbon-dioxide emissions, which are not currently regulated by the U.S. government.

Estimates vary on the size of the U.S. offset market, with some analysts putting the value of U.S. carbon offsets traded in 2006 at $91.6 million, an amount expected to grow sharply as more companies and individuals seek to lighten their impact on the atmosphere, or at least appear to be trying. Some companies are also betting the offsets they buy now will count toward their obligations under a future mandatory U.S. emissions-reduction system.

As purchases of voluntary offsets have soared in recent years, so have questions about whether money being spent on them funds real emissions cuts. Such offsets, which are often bought by consumers from online sellers, are supposed to represent emissions avoided through projects such as installing wind turbines or planting trees. Skeptics -- including some members of Congress -- have questioned how consumers can know in the absence of federal regulation whether such cuts are actually being implemented, or would have happened anyway.

While the findings of the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, are generally consistent with those criticisms and don't break new ground, they could help influence the design of whatever mandatory program for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions emerges from Washington.

The report says that in purchasing offsets from 33 retail providers, the GAO "did not always obtain sufficient information to understand exactly what we received as a result of the transaction." Because there is no single registry for keeping track of offset projects -- and ensuring that projects are not counted multiple times -- "it is difficult for consumers to determine the quality of the offsets they purchase," the report says.

Some kinds of offsets also are more credible than others, the auditors added. Planting trees, for example, "may not be permanent, because disturbances such as insect outbreaks and fire can return stored carbon to the atmosphere."

The report doesn't call for specific new regulations for the voluntary U.S. market. Instead, it suggests that if lawmakers decide to allow offsets in a mandatory scheme for reducing carbon emissions, they should consider setting clear rules on the types of projects that companies can use and a registry for tracking the creation and ownership of offsets.

Some of the GAO's other findings are likely to add fuel to a long-simmering conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the way that House Democratic leaders have gone about trying to make the Capitol's operations more environmentally friendly. The report finds that because of an error, the House chief administrative officer, Daniel Beard, last year bought $24,447 more offsets than were needed under a broad effort by Democrats to reduce the House's carbon footprint.

"In our rush to demonstrate our green bona fides, we failed to remember our No. 1 mission -- to safeguard the public's money," said Rep. Tom Davis (R., Va.). A spokesman for Mr. Beard acknowledged the error but said the additional credits are in an account with the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary greenhouse-gas reduction and trading system whose members commit to cutting their emissions. The extra credits, the spokesman added, will be used to reduce the House's carbon footprint in 2009. "We regard the over-purchase as an investment in future attempts to offset our emissions," the spokesman added.


Fires of the Feds: How the Government Has Destroyed Forests

As the wildfires in California and elsewhere burn forests, homes, and businesses, and as a Katrina-sized evacuation continues, environmentalists and the media are making new claims: these disasters are the results of global warming.

According to a recent "60 Minutes" broadcast and new claims on CNN, global warming is causing these newest disasters, and if we wish to have fewer fires in the future, we need to "change our lifestyles" now. Declares one environmentalist publication:
The wildfires consuming Southern California are extraordinary: Extraordinary because they have claimed so many homes. [E]xtraordinary because they started so quickly and have burned so intensely. Extraordinary because they are exhausting the formidable firefighting resources in a region used to wildfire.

But in the years to come, they may become ordinary. Scientists have already tied increased frequency and intensity of wildfires to the changing climate, and scientists are confident that the conditions that will be brought on by global warming will only make conditions more ripe for wildfire.

Says Anderson Cooper of CNN, in plugging CNN's "Planet in Peril":
At the top of the next hour . the big picture. These fires are really a piece of it. Fire, drought, global warming, climate change, deforestation, it is all connected, tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. "Planet in Peril" starts in just 30 minutes.

There are even scientists providing the "fig leaf" for this new theory of forest fires, like this recent article from Science:
Western United States forest wildfire activity is widely thought to have increased in recent decades, yet neither the extent of recent changes nor the degree to which climate may be driving regional changes in wildfire has been systematically documented. Much of the public and scientific discussion of changes in western United States wildfire has focused instead on the effects of 19th- and 20th-century land-use history. We compiled a comprehensive database of large wildfires in western United States forests since 1970 and compared it with hydroclimatic and land-surface data. Here, we show that large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures and an earlier spring snowmelt.

The translation is this: government forest management has been just fine; global warming is the cause of the modern forest fires that are consuming huge acreage in the American West. Perhaps it is convenient that government-paid scientists tell us that the real problem is private enterprise producing all that carbon dioxide that is supposedly killing us all.

There is this little problem, however, of government management of western forests for more than a century that has given us a situation that has inevitably led to what we are now seeing. A recent paper by Alison Berry of the Property and Environment Research Center points to a much different - but familiar - culprit, the federal government. Writes Berry:
For most of the 20th century, U.S. federal fire policy focused on suppressing all fires on national forests. The goal was to protect timber resources and rural communities, but this policy ignored the ecological importance of fire. North American forests have evolved with fire for thousands of years. Fire returns nutrients to soils, encourages growth of older fire-resistant trees, and promotes establishment of seedlings.

Decades of fire exclusion have produced uncharacteristically dense forests in many areas. Some forests, which previously burned lightly every 15-30 years, are now choked with vegetation. If ignited, these forests erupt into conflagrations of much higher intensity than historic levels. Grasses, shrubs, and saplings in the understory now form a fuel ladder, through which flames can climb to the forest canopy, killing entire forest stands.

The fire problem is exacerbated by decreasing federal timber harvests since the late 1980s. In the absence of fire, and with reduced timber harvests and thinning, numerous small diameter trees have proliferated. Stressed trees compete for scarce water, sunlight, and growing space.

To understand how we came to this place, we have to remember that we are dealing with old political legacies. First, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 placed all new western lands in the hands of the federal government. Even today, the government owns more than half of all western lands.

Second, the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt gave us more than just belligerence and anti-business rhetoric; it also gave us socialistic government land policies. Roosevelt was strongly influenced by Gifford Pinchot, a Progressive who held to the view that the state would be a better manager of lands than private enterprise. According to Wikipedia:
Pinchot sought to turn public land policy from one that dispersed resources to private holdings to one that maintained federal ownership and management of public land. He was a Progressive who strongly believed in the Efficiency Movement. The most economically efficient use of natural resources was his goal; waste was his great enemy. His successes, in part, were grounded in the personal networks that he started developing as a student at Yale and continuing through his career. His personal involvement in the recruitment process led to high esprit de corps in the Forest Service and allowed him to avoid partisan political patronage. Pinchot capitalized on his professional expertise to gain adherents in an age when professionalism and science were greatly valued. He made it a high priority to professionalize the Forest Service; to that end he helped found the Yale School of Forestry as a source of highly trained men.

At the time, loggers were clear cutting large expanses of private forests, and some conservationists expressed alarm, fearing that all US forests could disappear soon. (Like so many other dire predictions, this one had no basis in fact, but was nonetheless a useful rhetorical tool to spread fear among the public, and to empower the state.)....

Simply put, the state knew best. During much of the 20th century, government forests were "managed" mostly to serve timber interests, and often engaged in outright policies of subsidizing logging firms. While the lumber industry thrived under those conditions, there were two problems. First, there was the issue of economic calculation in which the value of things depended as much on the political whims of Congress and the executive branch as the value that such resources would have in a free market.

Second, and more important to the present-day situation, the politics of forest management and fire suppression underwent important changes. While the Forest Service temporarily suspended its "Smokey the Bear" policy, a spate of huge wildfires in 1988, including the conflagration at Yellowstone National Park in which a "let it burn" policy was in effect, led to a huge public (or more specifically, political) outcry, so the policy was abandoned and Congress once again demanded fire suppression.

During the late 1980s, and especially during the Bush I and Clinton administrations, the government began to aggressively push the Endangered Species Act as a way to "preserve" western forests. Doing an about-face from its policies of permitting lumber firms from logging western forests, the policies were changed to "leave the forests absolutely alone," a policy that changed the character of the forests.

For one thing, no logging meant that trees would grow more closely together, making forests so dense that it became inevitable that once-routine fires would turn into conflagrations. While these policies were popular with environmentalists, they were disastrous for people who once depended on logging for a livelihood. (Let me also point out that many of the anti-logging and anti-mining directives of the Clinton Administration had the effect of impoverishing those counties that had the effrontery of voting for Clinton's political opponents in presidential elections. Whether this was by coincidence or by design is left up to the reader to decide.)

But while the loggers moved out, the millionaires moved in. Wealthy people who wanted to get away from the crowded West Coast cities built new homes in areas adjacent to national forests. However, environmentalist-dominated governments refused permission to these homeowners to clear land near their homes, which meant that if the nearby forests caught on fire, their homes would almost certainly burn down. Application of the Endangered Species Act to prevent homeowners from removing nearby natural fire hazards also helped to ensure that new homes would be vulnerable to fires.

This is especially true in the coastal mountains of Southern California, where the latest spate of fires have occurred. People have built their "dream homes" in the cooler and more scenic higher elevations, hoping that the danger of fire would remain only a danger and not reality. State and federal policies, citing the Endangered Species Act, have specifically prohibited individual landowners from protecting their own homes and property by changing the nearby landscape to lessen fire dangers.

Fires are natural in that they have always occurred on earth, and will continue to occur. The real problem with the current fires, however, is government. Governments - in the name of "scientific" and "ecological" management - have grossly mismanaged the natural environment. Environmental policy has operated on the assumption - as so eloquently stated by Lew Rockwell - that "private ownership is the enemy." He writes that environmentalists believe:
Nature is an end in itself. So it must be owned publicly, that is, by the state. The state, in its management of this land, must not do anything to it. There must not be controlled burning, brush clearing, clear cutting, or even tourism. We can admire it from afar, but the work of human hands must never intervene.

Indeed, we see the handiwork of such policies: utter destruction of human and animal habitat. Those endangered species that the law was supposed to protect are swallowed up along with the million-dollar houses that environmentalists hate. So much for the state that "protects" nature. In fact, government has dealt with the natural environment in much the same way that the US Armed Forces dealt with Vietnam: they have destroyed it in order to "save" it.


Carbon gas continues to rise -- while the weather gets COLDER!

The warming is just theory, not fact. Only the CO2 rise is fact. Report from Australia below does not mention that

GLOBAL carbon emissions are continuing to rise at alarming rates despite efforts by households and governments across the developed world to go green. Official new figures show the rate of emissions is increasing at an alarming 3.5 per cent a year - exceeding the worst-case scenarios of the UN's peak scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Despite years of effort to change our ways, the Global Carbon Project report shows that for the first time, humans are now emitting more than 10 billion tonnes of carbon annually. And the emissions are accelerating, having already increased over the past eight years at four times the rate in the 1990s.

The biggest problems have come from the developing world, which now accounts for more emissions than rich nations. China has overtaken the US as the world's biggest carbon emitter, two years earlier than expected and India is set to relegate Russia to fourth place within a year.

In Australia, meanwhile, the situation is just as worrying. Local fossil fuel emissions are growing by 2 per cent a year, despite all other developed nations cutting their pollution.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the report found that, globally, atmospheric carbon dioxide growth is now outstripping the growth of natural carbon dioxide sinks such as forests and oceans. And the figures only relate to carbon dioxide emissions. While the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is at 383 parts per million (ppm), the concentration of total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is now about 410 ppm. According to the most recent UN political scientific reports, if the concentrations topped 450 ppm the world risks mass extinction of species and temperatures would soar more than 2.5C.

The report said the findings revealed a concerning trend in light of much-touted global efforts to curb emissions. All of these changes characterise a carbon cycle that is generating stronger climate forcing, and sooner than expected, it warned. British climate expert Corinne Le Quere said the numbers provided a stark reality check. The scale of efforts (to tackle emissions) is not enough, she said.

Meanwhile, the State Government announced it had purchased 18 per cent of its total energy bill last year from carbon offsets, hydro energy, wind farms and bagasse - a sugar cane by-product. But Queensland's 68,000 tonne reduction pales in comparison to the 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases produced by China last year - 26,470 times the State Government's energy offset.



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