Nick Cater has written another of those climate science denialist columns that The Australian likes to print whenever anyone sends one in.
In his introduction, Cater writes: “Given our deference to experts in these technocratic times it’s troubling how often they get it wrong”.
With a hubris-soaked introduction like that, you’d better be sure you’re facts are spot on. You wouldn’t want to look foolish now, would you?
Cue next few sentences.
Take Matthew England, an expert on global warming, who on the eve of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009 warned that the Antarctic was “losing ice at an alarmingly fast rate.”
Indeed England did say this to Lateline. OK so far.
“There’s a net mass loss of such a scale that Antarctica’s actually contributing as much today to sea-level rise as the Greenland ice sheet,” he told the ABC’s Lateline.
That seems OK too. The loss of ice from ice sheets on Antarctica has been accelerating rapidly, and it has continued to melt at faster rates, as I wrote on The Guardian recently. West Antarctica is losing about 159 billion tonnes of ice a year. So what’s Cater’s point?
Five-and-a-half years later the continent remains stubbornly frozen. The sea-ice record has been broken for the third year running and fuel is being flown to Mawson base by helicopter because the icebreakers can’t get through.
Erm, what? The sea ice record? But England wasn’t talking about sea ice.
When sea ice melts or sea water freezes, this has no impact on global sea levels. But when ice that’s attached to the land melts, then this does raise sea levels. England was referring to ice sheet melting, not sea ice (the two issues are actually linked though – fresher water from the melting ice sheets freezes more easily, one of the probable reasons for the increasing sea ice in Antarctica).
Either Cater has deliberately confused the two to make England look like he was wrong, or the head of a key research centre for the conservative side of politics has made a very basic stuff up of his research.
The theme running through Cater’s polemic is that experts are sometimes wrong, and he uses his wrong-headed analysis of England’s statements as an example. The irony bleeds.
Cater also quotes former UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Robert Watson to insinuate that the IPCC authors might be biased.
No one expects experts to be perfect, but as Robert Watson — a former IPCC chairman — has pointed out, the errors follow a pattern. “The mistakes all appear to have gone in the direction of making it seem like climate change is more serious by overstating the impact,” he said after the failure of the Copenhagen conference. “That is worrying.”
That quote comes from a 2010 article in The Times. When asked about that article, Watson later complained that the reporters had “distorted” his views and that he did not believe IPCC authors were biased, as might be inferred from the story and also from Cater’s quote.
Cater also pulls out well worn insinuations that the planet is not warming without mentioning that the 15 hottest years on record have all occurred from 1998 onwards. Last year, 2014, was likely the hottest of them all.
Cater quotes a 1988 conference in Toronto where, he says, “experts warned temperatures would rise by between 1.5C and 4.5C by 2050. With 27 years gone and 35 to go the rise is barely a quarter of a degree.”
Now here’s that conference statement:
There has been an observed increase of globally-averaged temperature of 0.5C in the past century which is consistent with theoretical greenhouse gas predictions. The accelerating increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, if continued, will probably result in a rise in the mean surface temperature of the Earth of 1.5 to 4C before the middle of the next century.
From the statement, it’s not clear if the writers were referring to an extra “1.5C to 4C” based on pre-industrial temperatures (the usual analogue for those sorts of statements), an extra “1.5C to 4C” from 1988 or an extra “1.5C to 4C” on top of the 0.5C.
The world has already warmed about about 0.89C since the the beginning of the 20th century.
Cater doesn’t mention that in the same section of the conference paper, the authors write that “natural variability of the atmosphere and climate will continue and be superimposed on the long-term trend” which is pretty much what’s been happening over the last decade or so – an issue which scientists have been keenly studying.
Darwall once wrote a climate science denial book, but is a former investment banker with no peer reviewed climate science publications to his name. Darwall has also written a couple of reports in recent years for tobacco company Phillip Morris on the issue of plain packaging.
When it comes to anyone who writes about climate change in the opinion pages of The Australian, to quote Cater, “it’s troubling how often they get it wrong”.