Whales Store Some Carbon, Oceans Store Loads of It

The is quite a bit of buzz today about recent research that quantifies how much whaling has – and is – contributing to atmospheric carbon. It appears that whales store significant amounts of carbon. I doubt, however, we will ever have a global breeding program to increase our whale populations, thereby offsetting our own carbon emissions. It’s just not feasible. (Besides, encouraging more people-whale interactions isn’t a popular idea at the moment.)

The focus needs to be broadened beyond whales. Ocean habitats are continually overlooked by the global community as viable sites of carbon sequestration. Blue carbon – as some call it – is a new concept being researched by the NGO community and receiving blog hits. The New York Times has even taken notice. Three months ago, Dan Laffoley of IUCN wrote a wonderful NYT op-ed entitled, To Save the Planet, Save the Seas. Read it.

In short, blue carbon emphasizes the key role of marine and coastal ecosystems. It places value on carbon-rich marine vegetation such as mangrove forests, seagrass, brackish marshes and salt marshes. Coastal and marine ecosystems are believed to be able to complement the role of forests  in taking up carbon emissions through sequestration.

See our related posts on this here, here and here.

This is a management area that was greatly overlooked in Copenhagen. It’s a concept to which the UN and coastal nations ought to give more attention. Island nations rich in blue carbon, like Indonesia, could benefit similarly to the way Brazil is predicted to benefit from “green carbon” sequestration programs, like REDD.

In my opinion, blue carbon sequestration programs will need new research, the right political advocates, and better governance. The question I pose to you marine scientists/environmental managers/policy makers: Where to start?

We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change: an op-ed by Al Gore

Former US Vice President Al Gore has a great op-ed in todays NYT here.  The  temperature anomaly map below perfectly illustrates this point he, us, and many, many other scientists have been trying to make about temperatures this January in Washington and globally:

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

If there is a god, she clearly has a cruel sense of humor:

Of all the places on earth to cool down this winter, did it have to Washington DC!  And this winter!  While the rest of the world is roasting?!  See the map source here. Thanks to Mark B’s comment on ClimateProgress. Also see this recent post on a new NOAA preliminary report (State of the Climate Global Analysis January 2010) indicates January 2010 was one of the warmest on record.

By AL GORE (see the full essay here in the NYT)

It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.

Of course, we would still need to deal with the national security risks of our growing dependence on a global oil market dominated by dwindling reserves in the most unstable region of the world, and the economic risks of sending hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas in return for that oil. And we would still trail China in the race to develop smart grids, fast trains, solar power, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy — the most important sources of new jobs in the 21st century.

But what a burden would be lifted! We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands. We could instead celebrate the naysayers who had doggedly persisted in proving that every major National Academy of Sciences report on climate change had simply made a huge mistake.

Second, we should have no illusions about the difficulty and the time needed to convince the rest of the world to adopt a completely new approach. The lags in the global climate system, including the buildup of heat in the oceans from which it is slowly reintroduced into the atmosphere, means that we can create conditions that make large and destructive consequences inevitable long before their awful manifestations become apparent: the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.

But there are two big problems with this critique: First, there is no readily apparent alternative that would be any easier politically. It is difficult to imagine a globally harmonized carbon tax or a coordinated multilateral regulatory effort. The flexibility of a global market-based policy — supplemented by regulation and revenue-neutral tax policies — is the option that has by far the best chance of success. The fact that it is extremely difficult does not mean that we should simply give up.

Some analysts attribute the failure to an inherent flaw in the design of the chosen solution — arguing that a cap-and-trade approach is too unwieldy and difficult to put in place. Moreover, these critics add, the financial crisis that began in 2008 shook the world’s confidence in the use of any market-based solution.

This comes with painful costs. China, now the world’s largest and fastest-growing source of global-warming pollution, had privately signaled early last year that if the United States passed meaningful legislation, it would join in serious efforts to produce an effective treaty. When the Senate failed to follow the lead of the House of Representatives, forcing the president to go to Copenhagen without a new law in hand, the Chinese balked. With the two largest polluters refusing to act, the world community was paralyzed.

The political paralysis that is now so painfully evident in Washington has thus far prevented action by the Senate — not only on climate and energy legislation, but also on health care reform, financial regulatory reform and a host of other pressing issues.

I, for one, genuinely wish that the climate crisis were an illusion. But unfortunately, the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, the crisis is still growing because we are continuing to dump 90 million tons of global-warming pollution every 24 hours into the atmosphere — as if it were an open sewer.

Because the world still relies on leadership from the United States, the failure by the Senate to pass legislation intended to cap American emissions before the Copenhagen meeting guaranteed that the outcome would fall far short of even the minimum needed to build momentum toward a meaningful solution.

And in spite of President Obama’s efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit meeting in December, global leaders failed to muster anything more than a decision to “take note” of an intention to act.

It is true that the climate panel published a flawed overestimate of the melting rate of debris-covered glaciers in the Himalayas, and used information about the Netherlands provided to it by the government, which was later found to be partly inaccurate. In addition, e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia in Britain showed that scientists besieged by an onslaught of hostile, make-work demands from climate skepticsmay not have adequately followed the requirements of the British freedom of information law.

But the scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea-level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Because these and other effects of global warming are distributed globally, they are difficult to identify and interpret in any particular location. For example, January was seen as unusually cold in much of the United States. Yet from a global perspective, it was the second-hottest January since surface temperatures were first measured 130 years ago.

Similarly, even though climate deniers have speciously argued for several years that there has been no warming in the last decade, scientists confirmed last month that the last 10 years were the hottest decade since modern records have been kept.

The heavy snowfalls this month have been used as fodder for ridicule by those who argue that global warming is a myth, yet scientists have long pointed out that warmer global temperatures have been increasing the rate of evaporation from the oceans, putting significantly more moisture into the atmosphere — thus causing heavier downfalls of both rain and snow in particular regions, including the Northeastern United States. Just as it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees, neither should we miss the climate for the snowstorm.

Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate: man-made global-warming pollution traps heat from the sun and increases atmospheric temperatures. These pollutants — especially carbon dioxide — have been increasing rapidly with the growth in the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and forests, and temperatures have increased over the same period. Almost all of the ice-covered regions of the Earth are melting — and seas are rising. Hurricanes are predicted to grow stronger and more destructive, though their number is expected to decrease. Droughts are getting longer and deeper in many mid-continent regions, even as the severity of flooding increases. The seasonal predictability of rainfall and temperatures is being disrupted, posing serious threats to agriculture. The rate of species extinction is accelerating to dangerous levels.

Though there have been impressive efforts by many business leaders, hundreds of millions of individuals and families throughout the world and many national, regional and local governments, our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which these emissions are increasing — much less reduce them.

Denialist Agenda (Part 5): Who’s defending science?

Here is Part 5 of Clive Hamilton’s excellent series of articles on ABC unleashed:

The sustained assault on climate science, detailed in this series, spread from the loonier corners of the internet first into certain media outlets with an ideological axe to grind, and now into neutral news outlets too lazy or lacking in confidence to carry out some basic checking before reporting the same distortions.

There is no excuse for this as there are a number of websites with easy-to-read and up-to-date deconstructions of the lies and misrepresentations peddled by sceptics, including Deltoid in Australia and RealClimate in the United States.

But if in echoing denialist misrepresentations some journalists are naïve or too busy to check, others are willing accomplices. For several years The Australian newspaper has been the leading organ of climate denial in Australia.

The list of beat-ups is so long that blogger Tim Lambert keeps a catalogue of The Australian‘s war on science. It’s a kind of archive of journalistic misbehavior that could be used in courses on media ethics. Let’s consider a couple of them.

Franklingate
Earlier this month, The Australian decided it wanted to challenge Climate Change Minister Penny Wong’s “alarming predictions” about the effect of sea-level rise on Australia’s coasts. So to which authority did journalists Matthew Franklin and Lanai Vasek turn to repudiate decades of scientific research?

There he was, featured in a huge photograph on the front page under the headline “Wong wipeout doesn’t wash with locals”, a 53-year-old bronzed man named Lee who said he’d been swimming at Bondi for 30 years and “was adamant he had seen ‘no change’ to the coastline”. To augment his careful observations, Lee engaged in some projections too, declaring that there’s nothing suggesting sea-levels at Bondi will change in the future.

Brilliant; give him a job at Australia’s leading sea-level research outfit, the Antarctic Climate CRC in Hobart. There he could go head-to-head with Dr John Church, the world’s leading authority on sea-level rise. He chairs the World Climate Research Programme’s scientific committee on sea-level rise, was awarded the 2006 CSIRO’s Medal for Research Achievement, and in 2007 won the Eureka Prize for his work on the measurement of sea-level rise. Mere trifles compared to Lee’s common sense.

Franklin and Vasek did not ask Church or any other authority on sea-level rise what their research shows; instead, for “authority”, they quoted Bob Carter, one of Australia’s leading climate skeptics — a favourite of the Heartland Institute and a founding member of the Australian Environment Foundation, a front group set up by the Institute of Public Affairs and whose board has included Leon Ashby, now president of the Climate Sceptics Party.

The Australian‘s decision to pitch the opinion of a bloke with a tan against years of scientific research is a deliberate strategy of pandering to ignorance, of fuelling wishful thinking at the expense of science. As politics it’s clever; as journalism it’s risible.

Walkergate
Jamie Walker writes beat-ups aimed at discrediting scientific claims that the Great Barrier Reef is seriously threatened by global warming. In a story earlier this month (front page again) Walker accurately reported research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science to the effect that some reefs did not experience the expected bleaching last summer due to the influence of storms.

This became the headline “Report undercuts PM’s reef wipeout” because Walker made the ludicrous leap from the absence of bleaching for two years to a rosy future for the Reef into the indefinite future. One data point became that basis for rejecting a catalogue of research linking warming seas to coral damage.

Walker has form for bagging marine scientists. Last year a story by him headed “Scientists ‘crying wolf’ over coral” was based on the opinion of Peter Ridd, a physicist who is listed as the Science Coordinator for the Australian Environment Foundation front group.

Weissergate
For years, the opinion pages of The Australian have been turned over to every denialist who pops up anywhere around the world, with even the loopiest given free rein — Christopher Monckton, Andrey Illarionov, Ian Plimer, Bob Carter, David Evans, Jon Jenkins, Christopher Booker, David Bellamy, Brendan O’Neill, Frank Furedi and many more.

The last two, incidentally, are members of an anti-environmental Trotskyist splinter group called the Revolutionary Communist Party, showing that, for opinion editor Rebecca Weisser, it doesn’t matter whether you are left or right as long as you loathe environmentalism.

Mitchellgate
The man who oversees this travesty of reporting is editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell. Last year he was chuffed to receive the annual JN Pierce Award for Media Excellence for coverage of climate change policy from … wait for it … the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, the foremost lobby group for the oil and gas industries. APPEA lauded Mitchell because his paper’s

“in-depth coverage of a range of public policy issues affecting Australia’s upstream oil and gas industry has been of a consistently high standard. The reporting has been thoughtful, balanced, analytical, well researched and a big effort was made to ensure that all facets of the issue were presented.”

Astonishment robs me of words.

The Fox of print
Rupert Murdoch had a much-publicised change of heart in 2007 — thought to be stimulated by his son James — when he told his news editors that the planet should be given the benefit of the doubt and News Ltd would go carbon-neutral. There are now rumours that Murdoch has recanted and has rejoined the denialist camp.

Certainly that would be consistent with the virulent anti-science now being run by his media outlets — including the triumvirate of broadsheets based in London, New York and Sydney — led of course by Fox News. Murdoch’s son-in-law, Matthew Freud said he spoke for other family members when he last month launched a breath-taking attack on Fox News. He said he is “ashamed and sickened by [Fox boss] Roger Ailes’s horrendous and sustained disregard [for] journalistic standards”.

Despite its high-brow pretentions, is not The Australian — with the same commitment to an ideological agenda, the same disregard for the separation of news and comment, and the same stable of bumptious right-wing columnists — just the Fox News of print? No wonder the paper’s last reporter with any credibility on climate change, Lenore Taylor, has finally jumped ship.

Right now on campuses across Australia, The Australian is engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign to sign up university students, offering a year’s subscription for $20. It would be comforting to believe that university students are capable of seeing through the distortions and manipulation of news that defines the national broadsheet. But that is wishful thinking and to the extent that The Australian‘s discount sale succeeds we risk seeing a generation of graduates whose understanding of climate science is grossly distorted by the newspaper’s unrelenting war on science.

For years, scientific organisations have attempted to correct The Australian‘s misrepresentation of the science. So unresponsive is the newspaper that some, including the Bureau of Meteorology, have just given up.

Science’s defenders
The trashing of the reputation of climate science spills over into the other sciences, so how has the profession been fighting back? After all, once the fury dies down it is likely to be many years before public trust in science can be rebuilt to previous levels. It would be a grave mistake for scientific organisations to imagine that this will all blow over and the world will return to normal.

One would expect that the employers and professional organisations of the scientists who are daily attacked as frauds, cheats and political zealots would be in the public domain defending them against these charges. But for the most part, they have been missing in action or engaged in skirmishes far from the main action.

The CSIRO is nowhere to be seen. Instead it has put the lid on its climate scientists, barring them from presenting their work, preferring actively to promote the commercial interests of the coal industry. The CSIRO’s new Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark (who transferred across from a senior executive position with BHP Billiton) should be out in public defending vigorously the quality of the organisation’s climate research.

The Bureau of Meteorology, whose work has often been traduced, has tried to respond but seems to have capitulated in the face of hopeless odds.

The Australian Academy of Science includes fellows whose work has been called fraudulent and dishonest and who are the target of abuse and threats. Their treatment should be a matter of the first concern, not least because the esteem in which all science is held is under attack.

At bottom, scientists are not good at public relations, and most scientists would much rather bury themselves in their labs than face a microphone. Once this did not matter, but in the face of a sustained assault on their credibility by people who have an intimate knowledge of how to use the media to manipulate the truth, their unworldliness is causing lasting damage.

As expected, the response to this series of articles on the state of climate change denial has been strong. The dogmatic and vitriolic nature of many of the comments on this blog and others confirms that denial is only nominally about the science and really about ideology and cultural identity.

There are two or three charges against me that keep doing the rounds and for the record I want to make brief replies.

1. Using the term “denier” does not equate climate denial with Holocaust denial. The term is used in other contexts, such as HIV denial, as a descriptor for those whose minds are closed to evidence that contradicts their opinion, yet who maintain their opposition to empirical reality is based on evidence. It is not the same as scepticism.

2. I have not equated climate and Holocaust denialism. The passage quoted to “show” that I have is my description of an argument others might use to equate the two (known as consequentialism), but which I explicitly reject.

3. I have not argued that we need to “suspend democracy” to tackle climate change. I have said some people believe this, but I don’t. I have said we must reinvigorate democracy.

4. Most bizarrely, some have said I should not be listened to because I have proposed shooting koalas for sport. This furphy came inevitably from Andrew Bolt. In an article titled “Cashing In On Koalas”, I argued the opposite by ridiculing the free-market approach to conservation using the well-known rhetorical technique of pushing an argument to its extreme, in this case charging American tourists to hunt koalas on Kangaroo Island. For those slow on the uptake I went as far as to propose some koalas be put in cages to be shot at short range by those with poor aim, and, for the really slow-witted, I concluded by saying Wilson Tuckey had given the scheme his blessing. Andrew, it’s called satire, you dope.

5. If a vote were held for the most vituperative blogger in Australia, Andrew Bolt would win hands down. Yet he has reacted to my criticisms of him with wounded outrage and by running around whingeing to everyone who will listen. We all met his type in the schoolyard, the bully who cries as soon as someone gives him one back. It’s truly pathetic.

False Killer Whales, Truly at Risk from Pacific Longlines

Dr. Andy Read is a marine mammologist and Duke Univeristy Marine Lab professor. He’s also part of a team of experts that convened last week in Honolulu. The new Take Reduction Team (TRT) is assessing the high mortality rate of false killer whales in the Pacific longline fishery.  The team’s assessment is long overdue.

Thanks to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, the TRT is legally mandated. Its implementation does not meant that it is too late to mitigate our affects on this population. Afterall, the Pacific longline fishery is use to being highly regulated. To its credit, it has adopted a suite of bycatch reducing technologies that have proven to minimize the take of threatened species (ie. side setting and streamers to reduce albatross take).  But the recent drop in this distinct poplulation is truly shocking; from more than 500 in 1989, only 100 individuals remain. Our behavioral changes will have to be significant.

If you’re equally as shocked, read on: http://honoluluweekly.com/cover/2010/02/truth-or-consequences/

I was recently in Honolulu at the longline fishery’s main market. I snapped this photo of Sean Martin, my guide around the market. He is the owner of several longline fishing boats, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, to which the owners of all of Hawaii’s 125 longliners belong, and co-owner with Jim Cook, another past Wespac chairman, of Pacific Ocean Producers, the Pacific’s biggest fisheries-supply company.

Sean’s on the TRT as well and has a lot to lose. The longliners, Hawaii’s largest commercial fishery, bring in about $60 million a year.

Evaluating the effectiveness of the protection of coral reefs

Responding effectively to the multiple threats to coral reefs around the globe requires not only good monitoring but also good reporting of the success or failure of management strategies. The Status of Coral Reefs of the World series, the 5th edition of which was published in 2008, offers the most comprehensive and rigorous reporting of coral reef status globally. Many countries also have national or regional reports on the status of the environment, including of their coral reefs.

Evaluating and reporting on the effectiveness of management strategies for coral reefs requires a clear analytical framework. Without this the communication of any results of such research for policy improvement is severely hampered.

Reef managers and others involved in reporting on the state of coral reefs may find helpful the discussion of conceptual frameworks for evaluation of policy in a new book, Does environmental law work? How to evaluate the effectiveness of an environmental legal system. While the book focuses on laws protecting the Great Barrier Reef and the review of the relevant science is not new, the discussion of conceptual frameworks for evaluation is applicable to all measures responding to threats to coral reefs.

Denialist Agenda (Part 4): Manufacturing a scientific scandal

Clive HamiltonThis  is part 4 of an excellent series of articles on the denialist agenda by Clive Hamilton.  Here, Clive outlines how ludicrous the claims are about the IPCC made by hack journalists such as Jonathan Leake (The Sunday Times).  As to someone who has participated in the IPCC process, Clive’s account is accurate and Leake’s horribly twisted.  It’s just a pity that much of the world’s media is so horribly gullible or complicit.  Surely there are mechanisms that we should be using to combat this deceit?

Clive Hamilton, ABC Unleashed.

Although sceptics have been gnawing away at the credibility of climate science for years, over the last five months they have made enormous leaps owing to the hacking of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the discovery of a number of alleged mistakes in the benchmark reports of the IPCC.

While the “revelations” have been milked for all they are worth, and a lot more, the science remains rock solid. If instead of cherry-picking two or three that lend themselves to spin, you read the 1000 or so emails that were posted on a Russian server the picture that emerges is one of an enormously dedicated group of men and women doing their best to carry out research of the highest quality.

If there were a conspiracy among scientists to manipulate the truth, you would expect the evidence to be there in spades in these private emails. But it’s not. Instead they show scientists working their backsides off to do good science, with email exchanges stopping briefly on Christmas Eve to be resumed on Boxing Day, with apologies to colleagues for taking time out to have surgery or get married, all with a sub-text of worry about the implications of their work for the future of humanity.

Rather than cover-ups, we read private emails from one scientist to Phil Jones, the CRU head who has been forced to step down pending an inquiry, saying he has been watching the sceptics blogs and, anticipating misrepresentation, says “this last aspect needs to be tackled more candidly in AR4 than in the SOD, and we need to discuss how to do this”. Others show them bending over backwards to be open.

Before the leak of the CRU emails, one colleague emailed others in response to attacks by sceptics on Phil Jones:

“The sad thing here is that Phil Jones is one of the true gentlemen of our field. I have known Phil for most of my scientific career. He is the antithesis of the secretive, “data destroying” character the CEI and Michaels are trying to portray to the outside world.”

And the emails reveal the enormous external pressure they were under. They show they were constantly accused of being frauds and cheats; their work was twisted and misrepresented; and they were bombarded with vexatious freedom of information requestsorchestrated by denialists. In short, they were caught up in a hot political debate that they did not really understand or want to be part of, yet they were the target of savvy, secretive and ruthless organisations ready to pounce on anything they said or wrote.

This is the real story exposed of “Climategate”. Instead, the scientists in question have seen their professional reputations trashed in the world’s media for no cause, to the point where Phil Jones has been on the verge of suicide. It has been the most egregious and unfounded attack on the integrity of a profession we have ever seen.

Yet the science remains rock solid

Since the leaking of the CRU emails the worldwide press have reported a series of “mistakes” in the IPCC reports that have allowed the denial lobby to claim that the entire IPCC process and the body of climate science should be junked. It turns out that almost all of the mistakes are fabrications. How could this have happened?

The first and only significant error identified in the IPCC report is the claim that 80 per cent of Himalayan glaciers are very likely to disappear by 2035. This was a serious mistake for a scientific report that should not have got through the review process. But let’s be very clear about its significance:

  • The error occurred in Volume 2 of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), the volume on the impacts of climate change. Volume 1 reports and assesses the physical basis for climate science, including projections of warming. Chapter 4 contains an extensive discussion of glaciers, snow and ice. Projections for glaciers are also discussed in Chapter 10. No one has challenged any of the statements in these chapters, prepared by teams including the world’s leading glaciologists, which carefully lay out what is known.
  • The erroneous “2035” claim was nowhere highlighted by the IPCC. It appeared neither in the chapter summary, the report summary or the crucial Summary for Policymakers. In no sense was it a central claim of the IPCC report, as some newspapers have said.
  • It was a glaring error that should have been picked up earlier, but it was so deeply buried in the report that denialists around the world, with all of their supposed scientific expertise, did not pick it up for two years. In fact, they did not pick it up at all; it was first pointed out by Georg Kaser and others. Kaser is an eminent glacier expert who was a lead author of Chapter 4 in Volume 1.

Although mistakes like this one should not occur, to suggest that it has any bearing on the credibility of the science of AR4 is absurd. The more remarkable fact is that so few errors have been identified in AR4, and none at all in the crucial Volume 1 which sets out the physical basis for climate change. On page 493 of Volume 2, where the “2035” mistake occurs, I count 20 factual claims that are falsifiable. Multiply that by the 3,000 or so pages in AR4 and you can see how utterly trivial that single mistake is.

But haven’t many more mistakes been found in AR4? No. The only other claimed error that has any substance is the statement that “55% of its [the Netherlands] territory is below sea-level”. This figure was supplied by the Dutch Government. It is slightly misleading because the correct statement is that 55% per cent of the Netherlands is at risk of flooding,although the Dutch Ministry of Transport says that 60% of the country is below the high water level. The confusion may have implications for the Netherlands’ dike planning but has no bearing whatever on the science of climate change.

There are three additional “errors” in AR4 that have attracted press attention and sparked denialist frenzies. They are analysed on the Realclimate website.

  • “Africagate” refers to the claim that AR4 overstated the potential decline in crop yields in Africa. The figures in AR4 have since been shown to be an accurate assessment.
  • “Disastergate” is the allegation that the IPCC erroneously attributed some of the rising costs of disasters to climate change. In fact, the section in question is hedged around with caution and the expert whose work was said to be misused by the IPCC has declared that the IPCC has fairly represented his findings.
  • “Amazongate”, a story that opened with the claim: “A startling report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise”. The story is plain wrong, with the expert on whose work the IPCC relied stating that the information is correct, although the referencing is incomplete.

Apart from the fact that these three “gates” are beat-ups with no basis in their criticism of the IPCC, they have one feature in common – the stories were all written by Jonathan Leake, science and environment editor of The Sunday Times.

Leake has close links with deniers and in fact based these stories directly on wild and unsubstantiated claims by sceptic bloggers, as uncovered by Tim Holmes. In the case of Amazongate, Leake had been informed by another expert that, while the referencing was inadequate, the claim in AR4 is correct and, if anything, an understatement. But Leake disregarded this and quoted that same expert in his story to exactly the reverse effect, as if he were a severe critic of the IPCC.

On the role of Leake I can do no better than quote Tim Holmes:

“While it is wholly unsurprising that the denial lobby should be attempting to push baseless and misleading stories to the press, what is surprising is the press’s willingness to swallow them. In this case, two experts in the relevant field told a Times journalist explicitly that, in spite of a minor referencing error, the IPCC had got its facts right.
That journalist simply ignored them. Instead, he deliberately put out the opposite line – one fed to him by a prominent climate change denier – as fact. The implications are deeply disturbing, not only for our prospects of tackling climate change, but for basic standards of honesty and integrity in journalism.”

Leake’s stories have been reproduced in the other Murdoch broadsheets, The Australianand the Wall Street Journal and of course have been amplified on Fox News, and are themselves now being referred to as “Leakegate”.

Bloggers and columnists, who attack climate science without ever opening an IPCC report or speaking to a real climate scientists, imagine that the body of climate science is a house of cards, and taking away one or two will cause it to collapse. In fact the scientific case for global warming is like a mountain built up by adding one rock at a time over many years. Even if all of the alleged errors were true it would amount to picking off a handful of rocks from the top of the mountain, leaving the rest unchanged and unmoved.

Yet these alleged mistakes – non-existent or trivial – with no implications whatever for the robustness of climate science have been deployed in a sophisticated campaign to blacken the reputations of the scientists responsible for alerting us to the perils of global warming.

Perception versus reality

Unfortunately, the chorus of declarations that the climate scientists got it wrong has had no impact on the earth’s climate. Indeed, those who study the climate itself rather than the bogus debate in the newspapers and the blogosphere understand that climate science and popular perceptions of climate science are diverging rapidly, not least because the news on the former is getting worse.

Soon after AR4 appeared in early 2007, those familiar with the science began to say that as a result of the consensus process and the natural caution of scientists, the Fourth Assessment Report had seriously understated the risks from climate change, particularly in its selection of scenarios and its estimates of likely sea-level rise.

Rather than rehearse the evidence for these warnings, well known to those who follow the science, let me make mention of a number of developments in climate science that have been published or reported in the five months since the leaking of the Climategate emails. It is evidence that warming is more alarming than previously thought yet which has been buried in the avalanche of confected stories claiming that climate scientists have exaggerated.

  • We have just had the warmest decade on record.
  • A new study concludes that an average warming of 3-4°C (which means 7-8°C on land), previously thought to be associated with carbon dioxide concentrations of 500-600 ppmv, is now believed to be associated with concentrations of only 360-420 ppmv, a range that covers the current concentration of 385 ppmv, rising at 2 ppmv per annum. If confirmed by further research, the implications of this are terrifying.
  • While news reports allege glacial melting has been exaggerated, the best evidence is that the rate of disappearance of glaciers is accelerating. The University of Zurich’s World Glacier Monitoring Service reports that “new data continues the global trend in strong ice loss over the past few decades”.
  • The rate of flow into the sea of Greenland and Antarctic glaciers is accelerating, adding to sea-level rise. This augments the evidence that IPCC cautiousness led to significant underestimation of the likely extent of sea-level rise in the 21st century. The East Antarctic ice-sheet, previously believed to be stable, has now begun to melt on its coastal fringes. The West Antarctic ice-sheet continues its rapid melt.
  • Sharply rising temperature in the Arctic has, over the last five years, caused a rapid increase in the amount of methane being emitted from melting permafrost. The limit of the Arctic permafrost has retreated northwards by 130 kilometres over the last 50 years in the James Bay region of Canada.
  • I have tried to find some new studies that go the other way in the hope I can counterbalance this bleak story, but have not succeeded.
    Over the last five months, a vast gulf has opened up between the media-stoked perception that the climate science has been exaggerated and the research-driven evidence that the true situation is worse than we thought.

    Just when we should be urging immediate and deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions, the public is being lulled into disbelief, scepticism and apathy by a sustained and politically driven assault on the credibility of climate science. For this we will all pay dearly.

    Tomorrow: Where are the defenders of science?