Category Archives: Communication

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:

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This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

‘2071’ by Duncan Macmillan and Professor Chris Rapley, CBE

This is an extraordinary production. And, the Royal Court run being completely sold out, we were lucky to see it yesterday.

It is extraordinary because it is not presented by any sort of actor but by a top international scientist, and one who obviously believes that doing this – presenting climate science as clearly as he can to two London theatre audiences a day – is the most important thing he has to do at the moment. And as we read from the free handout that one of his many professional roles is Chairman of the Science Policy Advisory Committee of the European Space Agency, we could well imagine, on what was the day of maximum tension after their triumphant comet landing, Professor Rapley would rather have been much closer to the action .

But onto the stage he walked, without the slightest showmanship, sat down, and talked quietly for 70 minutes about the situation that faces the world.

Behind him, and perfectly synchronised with his words, were steadily-evolving images, graphs and diagrams on a huge, kaleidoscopic back-drop.

2071 - Chris Rapley

The fact that these graphics were almost entirely monochrome made the occasional use of red extremely striking. The sound track was equally subtle; gently supporting the narrative and punctuating it with hanging silences while he took a sip from his water glass. In all it was a deceptively sophisticated telling of a story which is, of course, far too dramatic to require theatricality. To my mind it was perfectly judged, and absolutely convincing.

Professor Rapley had been Director of the British Antarctic Survey and was particularly authoritative about the collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves; now happening far more rapidly than ever expected. And as past Director of the Science Museum and Chairman of University College London’s Policy Commission on Communicating Climate Science he presented a masterly overview of all aspects of his subject. He described this year’s report from the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change, with its unequivocal call for action, as the most audited document in history. One easily-understood implication of this report being that three quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to avoid the potentially disastrous consequences of a more than 2°C rise in global temperature over pre-industrial levels. We have already had 0.8°C of that.

There were lots of young people in the audience, as well as older folks like us. But deniers were not at all in evidence. One day such people must realise that they have grandchildren too (Professor Rapley’s oldest will be the age he is now in 2071 – hence the title). Unfortunately, as things stand at the moment, that is going to be too late.

What are we doing to our climate? Some links for people attending my talk today…

As promised, here are some links for people who attended my talk at St Mary’s, Clapham on Wednesday 18 June, 2014

1. Hilarious video showing what a statistically valid ‘debate’ about climate change would actually look like: http://tinyurl.com/k5uslqx (4.9 million views and counting – updated January 2015))
Sending up the folly of ‘false balance’ in reporting of climate change issues by media such as Fox News and (disgracefully) the BBC:

2. IPCC reports : Climate Change 2014

The links take you to the menu for each report – I particularly recommend the videos, and especially the first one.

Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis http://preview.tinyurl.com/kfwycog

259 authors from 39 countries

Key messages:

  1. The warming of the Climate system is unequivocal
  2. Human influence on the climate system is clear
  3. Continued Greenhouse gas emissions will cause further climate change

“Therefore we conclude: Limiting climate change requires substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability http://tinyurl.com/nxk7lab

309 authors from 70 countries

Adaptation and mitigation are complementary

Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change http://tinyurl.com/nk68shs

235 authors from 57 countries

Global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by mid-century and further after that.

Complete transformation in the energy system – especially electricity generation.

The atmosphere is a common resource – free dump for greenhouse gases

We need a broad portfolio of approaches

3. The five stages of Climate denial (beautifully exemplified in the Murdoch press, including The Wall Street Journal ) http://tinyurl.com/lz2ltaj
Stage 1: Deny the problem exists   it does
Stage 2: Deny we’re the cause we are 2b: deny the scientific consensus it’s 97%
Stage 3: Deny it’s a problem it is
Stage 4: Deny we can solve it (too expensive, will hurt the poor, etc.) the exact opposite of the truth
Stage 5: Say it’s too late anyway it isn’t, quite, no thanks to Murdoch

4. Five pieces of ice news revealing earth’s ice cover is in serious decline http://tinyurl.com/qeo8dfe

  1. Antarctic ice melt is twice as fast as 10 years ago
  2. West Antarctic Glaciers are collapsing and it’s “unstoppable” – 2-3 metre sea level rise may take several centuries
  3. The Greenland Ice sheet could melt faster than previously thought
  4. Other ice caps and glaciers in the northern hemisphere are melting faster too
  5. Soot from forest fires contributed to unusually large Greenland surface melt in 2012

5. Northern hemisphere hits carbon dioxide milestone in April Reuter report 26 May http://tinyurl.com/l5aa4vy Read the denialists’ comments at the bottom if you’ve got a strong stomach.

My message to skeptics for Climate Week 2014

For at least three decades and with increasing urgency scientists throughout the world have been warning about dangers to the future of civilisation if we do not take radical steps to reduce carbon emissions.

You think the chance of them being right is smaller than I do, but we both accept that the chance exists. But in this particular case the warnings are so dire, are being voiced by such an overwhelming majority of scientists, and the consequences are so momentous, that for either of us to actively oppose the precautions being urged would be irresponsibility of the highest order.

However, for anyone to oppose these precautionary steps deliberately, by knowingly misrepresenting the science, or by deliberately setting out to undermine the scientists involved, in order to further the short-term interests of individuals or corporations with vested interests in maintaining the present course, would surely be a new kind of crime against humanity.

That is why people like me are passionate about the evil of organised climate change denial.

James A R Willis   Retired GP, Author, Grandfather

Climate Week 2014

But I dont want to “blog faster than ever”

Thank you WordPress for your latest email, but I don’t really want to ‘blog faster than ever’. I am using this facility now, but basically I think there is such a vast ocean of material on the web that quality is much more important than quantity. Am I alone in thinking that if you expect people to take the time to read what you say you should pay them the compliment of writing it as carefully as you can?

Some things flow well off the top of your head, but much more often you have to work and rephrase, review after an interval, and so on and so on, until it is something worth other people reading.

This is one of those ‘off the top of your head’ pieces. For better or for worse.