Why facts cut no ice in the climate debate

Reports of Greenland’s ice melting are overheated because the eco-outlook poisons both science and politics.

Ben Pile

Topics Science & Tech

The account of the climate debate that has driven most comment on it is that it is a debate between two camps: scientists on the one hand battle sceptics on the other. This misconception is the basis from which more mythology about the debate develops: scientists are united by a consensus, are of unimpeachable character and the science is unequivocal; sceptics are financed by oil interests, motivated by ‘ideology’ and are ‘anti-science’. But reactions to an incautiously worded press release announcing the discovery of an ‘unprecedented’ melting of Greenland’s ice sheet reveals that this understanding of the climate debate is deeply flawed. Nobody involved has a monopoly on science abuse or questionable motivations.

‘Satellites see Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Melt’, announced a press release on 24 July from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institution of Technology. Satellites that constantly scan environmental conditions on the planet’s surface had revealed that from 8 July to 12 July, 97 per cent of the surface of the ice sheet contained water rather than ice, whereas typically just 45 per cent of the surface area melts at this time of year. The extent of this melt is not in itself significant – just millimetres on top of an ice sheet that is 3.5 kilometres thick at its deepest point, most of which soon refreezes.

In spite of the headline, the press release itself went on to explain how the ‘unprecedented’ extent of surface ice melt wasn’t, in fact, unprecedented. ‘Ice cores from Summit [a central Greenland station] show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time’, said Lora Koenig, a NASA researcher involved in the analysis of the satellite data.

In plain sight of the fact that the melting was neither unexpected nor unprecedented, environmental journalists the world over picked up the story and ran with it. In the Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote: ‘The Greenland ice sheet melted at a faster rate this month than at any other time in recorded history, with virtually the entire ice sheet showing signs of thaw.’

As I have noted elsewhere, Guardian journalists have a fetish for stories about melting ice. In September last year, following an unusually low measurement of Arctic sea-ice extent, Damian Carrington wrote: ‘Ice is the white flag being waved by our planet, under fire from the atmospheric attack being mounted by humanity.’ But the low measurement of sea ice that Carrington pointed to disagreed with at least five other continuous measurements of the Arctic, and was thus unreliable. This kind of overreaction to scientific developments is a facile attempt to turn science into stories of political intrigue. When images of the Arctic taken by US spy satellites were declassified in 2009, the headline of an article by Goldenberg and Carrington proclaimed that ‘the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide’ had been ‘revealed’.

The rash of excited articles about the dying cryosphere caused some surprising corrective responses from voices within climate research. Malte Humpert from the Arctic Institute Centre wrote a stinging response to the headline histrionics. ‘The Greenland ice sheet, which is up to 3000+ metres thick, is not “melting away”, did not “melt in four days”, it is not “melting fast”, and Greenland did not “lose 97 per cent of its surface ice layer”.’ Humpert continued: ‘Most articles also exaggerated the importance of the melt event on global sea levels by explaining how sea levels would rise by up to 7.2 metres if the ice sheet were to melt.’

Similarly, Mark Brandon, a sea-ice scientist at the Open University, reproduced an interesting series of tweets and links to articles that showed the development of the current panic about ice, beginning with (alleged) comedian Marcus Brigstocke’s misconception of the story. To Brigstocke, an ‘unprecedented’ melt was the proverbial canary in the coal mine – a harbinger of doom. But as Brandon and his colleagues pointed out, it was a bit soon to be calling time on the human race. This was just weather.

Although it is good to see scientists engaging critically with climate alarmism, such corrections seem to have limited potential. Although climate activists and politicians have emphasised the scientific consensus on climate change, their alarmism has found its expression in the public sphere after press releases announcing scientific claims. These press-released stories often turn out to be based not on research, but on opinion or guesswork. For instance, in 2007, when Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent since 1979, a rash of speculation followed about when the ice might disappear altogether. In 2008, the Observer happily reported that 2013 would be the date of the ice cap’s demise, according to just one researcher’s claim.

But this turned out to be mere guesswork, as did other estimates of the future of Arctic sea ice, which put the date of disappearance much further into the future. The fact of this speculation was lost by journalists emphasising the scientific credentials of those doing the guessing; it was guesswork, but it was scientists’ guesswork.

Science has not put a stop to climate alarmism. The dynamics of the most barren and lifeless parts of the planet have become the ground on which the climate wars have been fought. And each ‘unprecedented’ move of any glacier, iceberg or sea ice becomes a moment of significance, seemingly telling us our future. Far from being scientific, prognosticating about the future of the world on the basis of the progress of ice is like reading frog entrails.

So what has science got to say about such fortune-telling, and what can it achieve? I asked Mark Brandon about what had moved him to write his corrective of the stories that followed NASA’s press release. ‘When I talk to people who don’t really know about polar science, they look at that picture of Greenland covered in red, and they think the whole ice sheet is melting’, says Brandon. ‘This isn’t a story about sea-level rise. But that is how virtually everyone has presented it. And that is how almost everyone has interpreted it as well.’

Brandon is keen to emphasise that this doesn’t mean that Arctic ice is not melting or that such melting is not a problem. Rather, he argues that overstating the problem is not helpful. ‘I don’t think many of these stories make much sense in isolation… If you view things in isolation then geographically it doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense from a climate point of view, which is what I [and other scientists] were trying to say. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s melting. I think it is. But it’s going for the headline. It’s an easy media thing. It’s a weather event. The temperature [in Greenland] only reached over zero for a few days. It would be the equivalent of a weather event going over Britain.’

If Brandon’s caution reflects the consensus position on climate science, it seems to be out-of-kilter with the wider public discussion about the climate. Endless stories about glaciers melting, polar bears, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and sea ice form the view that there is virtually no ice left on the surface of the planet. And there is no doubting the influence of such alarmism. Just prior to the 2009 COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen, then UK prime minister Gordon Brown told the world: ‘We should never allow ourselves to lose sight of the catastrophe we face if present warming trends continue. Only last week, we saw new evidence of the rapid loss of Arctic sea ice… And in just twenty-five years, the glaciers in the Himalayas which provide water for three-quarters of a billion people could disappear entirely… And the recent report of the Global Humanitarian Forum led by Kofi Annan suggests that… effects of climate change are already killing 300,000 people… and the total will rise to half a million each year by 2030’.

What was striking about Brown’s claims is that they owed nothing to science at all, let alone to the scientific consensus. Instead, the claims had come from the Caitlin mission to the Arctic – a PR and media stunt designed to highlight the shrinking of the Arctic – and from the Global Humanitarian Forum’s crude estimate of the effects of climate on poorer parts of the world that had emphasised climate, rather than lack of wealth, as the fundamental in the condition of the world’s poor.

Ironically, the deep cold of the Arctic caused the Caitlin’s equipment to fail, and ultimately the hostile weather meant the team had to be rescued. The Global Humanitarian Forum folded before the World Health Organisation’s recent announcement that incidences of malaria – one of the diseases the GHF predicted would increase with global warming – had fallen dramatically since 2000.

What most frustrates climate sceptics is the persistence of such junk science in the public and policy debates. Those who point out the problems of making arguments for policy on the back of PR stunts and junk science are labelled as ‘sceptics’ or ‘deniers’, motivated by profit, ‘ideology’ or simple bad-mindedness rather than the desire for a sensible debate about our relationship with the natural environment and concern about development. Brown’s errors are passed over with little criticism from science. But how to account for such errors in the first place?

One problem, says Brandon, is that a clear view of science is precluded by the expectations weighing on scientists, who may be reluctant to enter a fierce debate. He imagines a case of a researcher producing work that explained where climate models are going wrong: ‘If he or she stood up and talked to a journalist, that very good research intended to improve the models could have her work framed as saying that climate models are garbage, therefore the Arctic isn’t warming.’ In other words, in a highly polarised debate, scientific developments are taken to be decisive. Mistakes in computer models are taken to be the final word on the paucity of evidence of manmade climate change, and an anomalous measurement of Greenland’s ice sheet spells the end of the world.

Another problem is that journalists and policymakers simply do not understand the context of research. Brandon compares a lay reading of climate science to an attempt to read a Jane Austen novel at face value. Without historical knowledge of the grammatical nuances and peculiarities of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century society, the significance of events in Austen’s plots may be lost on the reader, and the motivations of the characters so much harder to fathom. And so it is with climate science: the caveats, context and cautions scientists attach to their work are forgotten by excited journalists who report it and who furthermore forget their roles as critics of authority, be it political or scientific.

The loss of scientific context does something to explain how the significance of scientific research is amplified by stories which cover them. But there is a wider context to scientific research – especially climate research – which a view of the deficit between scientists and journalists does not capture. After all, some scientists are involved to some extent in the creation of dramatic stories about the melting of ice and the peddling of alarm in the media. Following the NASA story, Edward Hannah, reader in climate change at the University of Sheffield, wrote in the Guardian that ‘the Greenland ice sheet is living on borrowed time’, and that ‘tens of centimetres’ of sea-level rise ‘would make many coastal communities more vulnerable to flooding and storm surges’. Such a conclusion had nothing to do with the story at hand and presupposed that it was beyond the means and minds of ‘coastal communities’ a century hence to move themselves away from the shore or build coastal protection.

It is this historical illiteracy that afflicts scientists as much as it moves journalists to promote alarmist interpretations of press releases from climate science – of which they are equally illiterate. Climate change excites the imaginations of individuals – journalists and scientists included – who labour under a narrative of humanity’s close relationship with nature. On this view, ‘coastal communities’ are incapable of responding to changing circumstances, even over the course of centuries. Thus a theoretical problem that may emerge thousands of years into the future becomes an immediate danger that can only be dealt with now, and in the way preferred by the alarmist narrative: ceasing the industrial and economic progress that would afford those coastal communities a better way of life, as well as better protection from the elements. An insidious and self-fulfilling prophecy turns the observation of an unremarkable melting of a few millimetres of ice into a story about several miles of melted ice, and metres of sea-level rise.

A belief persists that is possible strictly to set the boundaries of politics and science, such that science can issue politics with imperatives on the basis of what it detects in the material world. But clearly, the poorly conceived environmental narrative and pseudoscientific factoids persist across both science and politics. The damage done by the characterisation of the debate as one between scientists and sceptics, and the view of science and politics as easily delineated processes, is that progress is made in neither politics nor science. Even correcting the excesses of environmental alarmism – or for that matter, climate scepticism – means scientists taking sides in a political war. ‘It doesn’t matter what you’re going to do, you’re still going to upset people’, says Brandon.

This should give us a clue as to how damaging the expectations of science are. Science is expected to give decisive answers to the debate and unambiguous instructions to politics. Brandon crystallises the problem: ‘In a way, it doesn’t matter how much you don’t want to be part of the public debate’, he says. ‘You’ve got no right to be quiet, because the implications of some of the things that people are determining are significant’. The scientist who produces research that either tends towards or against the alarmist picture of the world finds him or herself on that side. So why do any science or make comments in public at all?

As long as there is an expectation that science can only produce uncorrupted and objective accounts of the world, the immediate significance of melting ice (and other things) will continue to be overstated. And while there is an expectation that instructions to politics can be simply read off from scientific observations, anti-progress and anti-human narratives, of the kind epitomised by the Guardian’s alarmism, will persist. It is these tendencies which allow a few millimetres of melted ice to turn into stories about several miles of melting, and many meters of sea level rise.

One way out of this impasse might be to recognise the extent to which the dramatic storyline of climate catastrophe precedes science, afflicting even scientists. It’s not enough to simply say that this or that aspect of alarmism is overcooked; the problem is with the entire outlook. Science cannot tell you that melting ice is significant; it can only explain how much of it has melted. The significance of melting ice is determined by how much we believe the future depends on ice not melting.

Ben Pile is the convenor of the Oxford Salon. He blogs at Climate Resistance.

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Topics Science & Tech


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