Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Aims high but shoots self in foot.

Sigh - media professional and skeptic Poneke has a post on media hysteria and climate change.

It ought to be interesting but, unfortunately, it ends up bogged down in falsehoods and misunderstood science.

Poneke is right that the media's treatment of climate change is - like many other complex issues - at times sensationalist and often lacking in useful information.

He/she is also correct that Tuvaluans are not yet - as claimed Al Gore - flocking to NZ to flee their flooded islands.

And he/she has a point that there is a tendency amongst reporters and commentators to attribute particular weather events to climate change when, due to natural variations, this is something we cannot accurately do. We can say things such as "such events may become more frequent due to anthropogenic global warming" or "this event may have been a product of human induced climate change" but we can't say, with certainty, that event X was caused by our pumping of GHGs into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, after that Poneke starts to burble a bunch of climate change denier talking points. Which rather undermines the whole exercise.

One at a time:

1. "...sea levels haven’t risen yet..." Oh, yes they have.

2. "But it [climate science] is yet barely more than a series of computer predictions about what could happen over the next 100 years if we keep spewing ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere."

Actually, it's quite a lot more than computer predictions. First, we have our knowledge of atmospheric chemistry and physics (which has been well understood for a long time). Second, we have an observed rise in CO2 and other GHGs (which we know, in the case of CO2, thanks to Carbon Isotope measures, to be mostly human produced). Third we have an observed temperature trend which is inline with what we would expect from points 1 and 2.

This alone gives us good reason to suspect that, if we keep increasing GHGs that temperatures will keep increasing. It is - conceivably - possible that some feedback mechanism could offset this. However, there is no such mechanism in existence that we know of.

Even without computer models, there is every reason to worry about climate change.

Computer models add to this though. What's more, they when we run them over historical climate records they do a good job of recreating them. In other words they are a useful tool in climate prediction.

3. "Science at this global, theoretical level is never settled, despite the claims of the climate change lobby."

True, perhaps, but besides the point. When we take action in response to future risks we invariably do so in the absence of certainty. But clearly this doesn't mean we shouldn't act to avoid something that appears very likely to occur. Think about this for a second. If you jump out of a plane without a parachute you don't know for certain that you won't die. But the chance is high enough to stop you from taking the plunge. If our approach to risk aversion was based on certainty and certainty alone we'd all already be dead. But it isn't; risk management, when done well, is based on the best information at hand. And - in the case of climate change - that information suggests that we need to act.

4. "Whatever long-term changes happen with global climates, they will fall far short of the Armageddon scenarios painted by the news media."

I don't know what media Poneke's been reading but you can avoid the media altogether and stick to peer reviewed research and still paint a very frightening scenario.

5. "Climate has always changed."

Yes but this time we are causing it, and this time the world is packed to the rafters with 6.6 billion odd people, all of whom who depend on our planet's web of ecosystems for sustenance. If we, trough climate change and other environment damage causing actions, cause these to unravel, or even simply change to a less productive equilibrium, suffering will follow.

6. "Europe was warmer than now 1000 years ago and much colder than now 500 years later. The world has warmed slowly since, but with modern reversals such as the period from about 1940 to 1980 when it cooled again, leading to the media’s 1975 Ice Age panic. There are almost certainly other issues affecting climate than human activity, and science will inquire and refine the theory over time."

Um - so what? Europe may have been warmer than now in the Medieval Warm period but the globe as a whole was not. And, anyhow, no one is arguing that the Earth's climate does not vary naturally (the causes of natural variations are already reasonably well understood). The point is that the current variation is being caused by us and, if it goes unchecked, people will suffer. (By the way, the cooling in the middle of the last century is well understood and the ice age panic was not backed by scientific consensus to anywhere near the same degree as AGW is.)

If Poneke had really wanted to discuss the deficiencies of media coverage of climate change he/she could have started with the Oreskes Study. Instead we get the usual debunked nonsense, which is a pity given that the blog is well written and usually full of interesting analysis.

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