IPCC errors: facts and spin

There is a great new must read article at RealClimate outlining and analyzing all those errors in the IPCC AR4 report you keep hearing about.  Check it our here.

Currently, a few errors –and supposed errors– in the last IPCC report (“AR4″) are making the media rounds – together with a lot of distortion and professional spin by parties interested in discrediting climate science.  Time for us to sort the wheat from the chaff: which of these putative errors are real, and which not? And what does it all mean, for the IPCC in particular, and for climate science more broadly?

Let’s start with a few basic facts about the IPCC.  The IPCC is not, as many people seem to think, a large organization. In fact, it has only 10 full-time staff in its secretariat at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, plus a few staff in four technical support units that help the chairs of the three IPCC working groups and the national greenhouse gas inventories group. The actual work of the IPCC is done by unpaid volunteers – thousands of scientists at universities and research institutes around the world who contribute as authors or reviewers to the completion of the IPCC reports. A large fraction of the relevant scientific community is thus involved in the effort…

Read the rest here

Same old Bolt, same old story.

wilson-boltUpdate: Andrew is at it again.  Either he doesn’t understand the science or he is wilfully distorting the information surrounding the impact of climate change on coral reefs.

See also this posting and this one on huge impacts of exceptionally warm water in Western Australia on coral reefs.

Update: this piece was first published back on Feb 10th, 2009 – I thought it would be worth bringing up to the top to highlight Bolt’s ongoing war against science.

After last nights airing of the Australian Story (click here if you missed the epsiode), the columnist Andrew Bolt has decided to play the wounded soldier, accusing ABC Australian Story of bias.  Like me, you might find this a little amusing coming from someone who spends most of his time spinning the truth on all number of issues at the expense of his unable-to-respond victims.  Apart from failing to tell you that the ABC went to great lengths to put up the full video of our exchange (which is up on their website here, and the fact that he got the last word), he continues to accuse the ABC of bias and scientists like me of being eco-alarmists.  In a very tiresome way he has trotted out the same old accusations despite the fact that he has been corrected endlessly.  So much for his adherence to the truth!

Anyway, here we go again:

Accusation 1.  “In 1999, Ove warned that the Great Barrier Reef was under pressure from global warming, and much of it had turned white. In fact, he later admitted the reef had made a “surprising” recovery.”

Firstly, Andrew has the year wrong – I think he meant 1998.  In 1998, 60% of the Great Barrier Reef bleached, and about 5-10% of the reef died. These are not my figures, but figures from the surveys done by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. All published in peer review journals rather than newspapers.  Secondly, it is true we as a scientific community were very concerned – rightfully so given similar events happened in the Western Indian Ocean in 1998, which resulted in 46% of coral reefs being destroyed.  One third of those coral reefs destroyed remain missing in action, and have failed to recover 10 years after the event.   Third, in all of Andrew’s comments so far, it is apparent that he fails to realise that we were talking about the risk of particular events happening.  As waters heat and corals bleached, there is the increased risk of reefs like the Great Barrier Reef being severely damaged.  I believe that it would be remiss of scientists not to communicate the concern about this increased risk – I challenge anyone who thinks that this is an alarmist strategy.

As for my comment about a “surprising recovery” – like many reef scientists, I was overjoyed to see that the Great Barrier Reef had fared better than the Western Indian Ocean. The fact that the risk had increased sharply but we got away with only 5-10% of the reefs being damaged was good to see.  Despite the small percentage though, 5-10% of reefs represents about 4,000 square kilometres of coral reef being destroyed.  That is, even though it wasn’t as bad as the catastrophe in the Western Indian Ocean, it was still a highly significant event.

Accusation 2. “In 2006, he warned high temperatures meant “between 30 and 40 per cent of coral on Queensland’s great Barrier Reef could die within a month”. In fact, he later admitted this bleaching had “a minimal impact”.

I stand by the statement that coral bleaching is a serious threat to the Great Barrier Reef – to date we have gotten off lightly compared to other areas around the world. Let’s examine what actually happened in 2006.  Early in that year, we saw an unusual and rapid warming of the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and the risk of a major bleaching event escalated as temperatures climbed. Leading scientists from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority were saying exactly what I was saying. Both US experts at NOAA and NASA came out with similar statements.  While the northern Great Barrier Reef looked like it might be damaged, the risk dissipated as summer progressed.  As it turned out, however, the hot water remained in the southern Great Barrier Reef and killed 30-40% of corals in that region. Again, the outcome was not trivial but it wasn’t as bad as the sorts of catastrophes we had seen in other reef regions around the world, such as the Caribbean and Indian Ocean regions.

Accusation 3. “In 2007, he warned that temperature changes of the kind caused by global warming were again bleaching the reef. In fact, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network in December said there had been no big damage to the reef caused by climate change in the four years since its last report, and veteran diver Ben Cropp said that in 50 years he’d seen none at all.”

Putting Andrew unsubstantiated quotes aside, there are some huge inaccuracies and problems in this missive.  Firstly, Andrew’s claim that the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network held this position has been disputed by one of the key scientists from the network.  Secondly, referring to the opinion of a veteran spearfisherman is fine, but runs counter to the objective analysis of the evidence on this issue. I have asked Andrew to read the paper by John Bruno and Liz Selig (both leading international coral reef scientists) who have examined 6000 separate studies done over the last 40 years, and have found evidence that coral reefs both on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Western Pacific deteriorating at the rate of 1-2% per year.  The challenge to Andrew is to show why this analysis of 6000 separate studies is wrong and why he and a few unpublished ‘experts’ are right – the paper is free online for anyone to read.

Afterall, in his own words Andrew admits:

“I am not a scientist, and cannot have an informed opinion on your research.”

Then, what are you really saying?

Chinese cut methane emissions through better rice farming


Theres not much to smile about in the run up to Copenhagen. However, I snapped up this piece of good news in August but haven’t had the time to post it. Its well worth a read. Basically, draining the water out of rice paddies during the growing season has led to dramatic reductions in methane emissions from Chinese rice-growing sector. Studies conducted by scientists from China and the United States estimate that methane emissions from rice paddies have fallen by a staggering 70% since 1980.

Farmers normally flood rice fields throughout the growing season, meaning that methane is produced by microbes underwater as they help to decay any flooded organic matter.

By studying experimental rice plots and real farmland, Chris Butenhoff and Aslam Khalil, physicists from Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, together with Xiong Zhenqin, an ecologist at Nanjing Agricultural University in China’s Jiangsu province, and their colleagues set out to identify the different factors that affect this process.

The team found that draining paddy fields in the middle of the rice-growing season — a practice that most Chinese farmers have adopted since the 1980s because it increases rice yields and saves water — stopped most of the methane release from the field. The team presented their results on 13 August at a meeting on climate science convened at a Beijing hotel by the US Department of Energy and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Earlier this year, another team of scientists reported that global methane emissions from rice paddies could be cut by 30% if fields are drained at least once during the growing season. This is a great example of changes in farming practices that not only result in substantial improvements in local and regional yields, but could also have a significant effect in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

Profesor Steffens takes Senator Steve Fielding to task for climate ignorance

A few weeks ago we posted about how Australian Senator Fielding attempted to convince the Australian senate that global warming didn’t exist by questioning the link between global warming and CO2 using a few highly questionable graphs and cherry picked science (Fielding the hard questions? Not likely). Along with Bob Carter (who seems to be suffering credibility issues these days), Senator Fielding invited Professor Steffen, the Executive Director of ANU’s Climate Change Institute along to answer a few questions on the relationship of carbon dioxide and global warming. In an intriguing move, Prof Steffan (one of the co-authors of the ‘Climate change poised to feed on itself‘ article) declined the invitation, leaving Fielding to comment:

“I can’t see how any responsible senator could vote on an emission trading scheme without listening to what the world of science has to say on the issue.
The briefing will take place on 12 August, the day after Parliament resumes.

“I also wrote to the government’s climate change expert, Professor Will Steffen, but he declined my invitation to provide senators with a briefing,” Senator Fielding said.

“I’m at a loss as to why Professor Steffen doesn’t want to put forward his position if he believes in it so strongly.

“Given the science is still inconclusive I’m not willing to gamble with thousands of Australian jobs and escalating electricity prices.

Frankly, Senator Fieldings offer of “a scientific briefing on climate change with Professor Bob Carter before they vote on the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme” is laughable. So why exactly did Professor Steffan refuse the invitation? In a nut shell, Prof Steffan rightly believes that amongst the climate science community, there is no debate of the relationship between anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and global warming, and that Senator Fielding and his Heartland Institute colleagues not only do not represent “the other side of the scientific debate”,  but lack scientific credibility entirely. So much for a “Independent Due Diligence Report” – apart from Fielding et al’s deliberate attempts at scientific obfuscation, the science is entirely conclusive.



“…cataclysmic global warming is universally understood to be quite a lot like that comet on its earthbound track”

My friend, David Stout (Professor Emeritus) sent me this interesting piece of commentary regarding why many people are not appreciating the urgency of action on climate change.

The problem is a generational and psychological one.  Mr Micawber rules, because, politically, we elders (who presently have the potential to take difficult and pressing collective decisions) have not evolved to respond to,  and to anticipate and preempt events that are set well beyond our own life spans.  We may be able to crawl out of short-termism into the medium-term, but not into the necessary long term.  Most of us are congenitally unable to process the fact that – as a famous Chinese philosopher pointed out –  if a tree is to reach maturity in one hundred years, then it has to be planted today.

The SALT treaties were possible because the nuclear holocaust was well within the timeline of the leaders. What a difference it would make if the creeping  threat to the Florida coast was within the next five years, not next thirty to fifty.

It is difficult, perhaps too difficult, for the powerful elders to make sacrifices to save their children’s children, when they are neither absolutely convinced of it, nor feel imminent danger to themselves.  Even the relatively young Barak Obama is a time-server, not a time-lord.  The Chinese leaders fall back on the convenient cop-out: “we didn’t cause it.  You, who did, must solve it.”

If, with the same predictive certainty as a future eclipse, the world’s astronomers announced that an annihilating comet was on a collision path with the earth on August 20, 2050, we just might not sit around and smell the roses.  Even if it took all the world’s scientific and technological resources, they would somehow be mobilised with little delay, to seek to find a way to divert it from its path or to destroy it.  That case is  different:  the event would be certain beyond peradventure; the timetable would be exactly known; and it could not be said to have been anybody’s fault or unique responsibility.

The challenge is to keep working so fast and hard on the science, on the geo-politics and on global outreach that cataclysmic global warming is universally understood to be quite a lot like that comet on its earthbound track.

Policy changes and paradigm shifts following Copenhagen

The United Nations  climate conference in Copenhagen (which I attended ) was an excellent initiative, with some fairly interesting insights into the gulf between science and policy making. Following the conference, we were contacted by The Guardian newspaper to participate in a poll on global warming. The results are striking – almost 90% of climate scientists ‘do not believe political efforts to restrict global warming to 2C will succeed’, and that ‘an average rise of 4-5C by the end of this century is more likely’.

The poll of those who follow global warming most closely exposes a widening gulf between political rhetoric and scientific opinions on climate change. While policymakers and campaigners focus on the 2C target, 86% of the experts told the survey they did not think it would be achieved. A continued focus on an unrealistic 2C rise, which the EU defines as dangerous, could even undermine essential efforts to adapt to inevitable higher temperature rises in the coming decades, they warned.

The survey follows a scientific conference last month in Copenhagen, where a series of studies were presented that suggested global warming could strike harder and faster than realised.

The Guardian contacted all 1,756 people who registered to attend the conference and asked for their opinions on the likely course of global warming. Of 261 experts who responded, 200 were researchers in climate science and related fields. The rest were drawn from industry or worked in areas such as economics and social and political science.

The 261 respondents represented 26 countries and included dozens of senior figures, including laboratory directors, heads of university departments and authors of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Read more)

This sobering news isn’t helped by reports that Steven Chu, the US Secretary for Energy (who I blogged on back in February) has done a complete backflip on statement that coal as ‘his worst nightmare‘, and is now endorsing ‘clean coal‘ technologies. ‘Clean coal’ is a complete myth, and thankfully the US Environmental Protection Agency have passed a motion to deem 6 greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride) as ‘dangerous to the public‘, opening up legislation to regulate powerplants and the automotive industry. It will be interesting to see exactly where the Obama administration will take the United States under the new environment and climate change policies, which aim to invest $150 billion in clean energy and renewable sources.

The other CO2 problem – animated adventures into ocean acidification

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55D8TGRsl4k&hl=en&fs=1&w=425&h=344]

Take a look at this light-hearted video on a serious subject. This animation on ocean acidification was made by students from the Ridgeway School (Plymouth, UK) and the Plymouth Marine Laboratory – an excellent production!

Ridgeway students have made a short animated film which is being used internationally to highlight the acidification of the world’s seas. Called ‘The Other CO2 Problem’, the film was commissioned by Dr Carol Turley from Plymouth Marine Laboratory, a leading authority on ocean acidification who had seen a previous film (which won a Europe wide film making competition held by Euroceans) made by the students which highlighted the problem of pollution in the seas.

Sixteen students drew up the storyline, designed and made the starring characters from plasticine then filmed the stop frame animation. Seventy other students composed and played the accompanying music

“Hungry Crustaceans Eat Climate Change Experiment”

copepodsThe ‘seeding of the oceans’ with iron as a ‘quick fix’ to climate change has been the subject of much debate over recent years, with some companies going as far as commercialising the selling the concept in exchange for carbon credits. The idea – to seed the surface of the oceans with iron (a trace element essential to photosynthesis that is often a limiting factor in the marine world) in order to stimulate phytoplankton growth, in turn sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – isn’t entirely new. Over thirteen research groups have trialled iron fertilisation since 1993 to varying degrees of success, although most of these projects have fallen short of the dream of the late oceanographer John Martin back in the late 80’s: “Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age”

After a series of moderate succeses onver the past decade, it seems that the idea of sequestering CO2 in the oceans might truely be dead and buried. Project LOHAFEX, a joint Indo-German group, succeeded in seeding an area of 300km2 with over 6 tonnes of iron, resulting in a doubling of plankton biomass in just two weeks. What the team didn’t factor was the power of the oceans food web. Instead of the plankton bloom undergoing a natural death and sinking to the ocean floor (along with the sequestered CO2), the phytoplankton became an instant food source for hungry copepods, who in turn were consumed by a swarm of larger crustaceans (amphipods – see inset picture).

This ‘grazing effect’ was apparently absent from previous experiments, which instead  stimulated the growth of diatoms. Diatoms differ from most phytoplankton in that they are protected from being eaten by protective shells made of silica. Whilst the experiment did succeed in providing new insights into the dynamics and ecology of plankton, to quote Ken Caldiera “I think we are seeing the last gasps of ocean iron fertilisation as a carbon storage strategy”.

“Macro-algal dominated coral reefs: shake that ASS”

In recent years, coral reefs have been hit hard by an array of anthropogenic impacts – coral bleaching, coral disease, overfishing and eutrophication to mention but a few – resulting in significant declines in coral cover and species diversity. One of the classic examples of coral reef decline was discussed by Terry Hughes in a 1994 article in the journal Nature, entitled “Catastrophes, Phase Shifts and Large-Scale Degradation of a Caribbean Coral Reef”. Hughes concluded that the synergistic impacts of overfishing, hurricane damage and disease resulted in a ‘phase shift’ from a coral dominated ecosystem (52% coral cover, 4% algal cover) to a macro-algal dominated ecosystem (2% coral cover, 92% algal cover). Similar examples of phase-shifts from coral to macroalgal dominated ecosystems have been observed across the Caribbean region, throughout the Eastern-Pacific, Indian Ocean and on the Great Barrier Reef.

asdasdWhilst macro-algal dominated reefs and phase shifts have recieved considerable attention in the scientific literature, a recent paper questions the role and driving factors of such ‘alternative stable states’ (ASS), and implicates the dominance of several other organisms that take rise following the loss of coral cover.

First establishing that a ‘phase shift’ must result from a decline of coral and subsequent increases in an other ‘alternative’ organism that must last for a significant period of time (in this case >5yrs), Norström et al conducted a survey of the literature to determine exactly what alternative organisms were dominant on reefs following a phase shift.

The authors argue a timely point that phase shifts associated with coral reefs are not exclusively coral – macroalgal shifts, and often result in shifts to ‘other’ states, including ‘soft coral’  dominance (corallimorphs and octocorals), sponges and urchin dominated states.

One of the key findings of the research suggests that whilst these different alternative states are common, the factors driving the shift may be considerably different. Whilst macro-algal states are driven by ‘top down’ factors (a loss of herbivorous fish or urchins through overfishing or disease), soft coral and sponge states are more closely associated with ‘bottom up’ factors (declining water quality).

Site specific examples of phase shifts in coral reefs: a) Israel, b) Seychelles, c) Belize

Site specific examples of phase shifts and the persistence of alternative stable states in coral reefs: a) Israel, b) Seychelles, c) Belize

So what does it take to ‘shake that ASS’? (Alternative Stable State, of course). Once a coral reef has shifted to an alternative stable state, simply removing the stressor that triggered the shift might not be sufficient to produce recovery back to a coral dominated state – partly due to feedback mechanisms, or a longer-term decline in environmental conditions.

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