Herald gives de Freitas platform to smear climate science

By Bryan Walker 01/05/2014


Climate change denier and Auckland University geographer Chris de Freitas seems to have fast access to the dialogue pages of the NZ Herald. His latest effort this week is a long ramble ostensibly around the possibility of an El Niño this year, but at its centre contains a nasty slur on the honesty of climate scientists. He confuses, presumably deliberately, predictions of a weather event in the short term with the longer term predictions of climate change.

The short term prediction relates to the possibility of an El Niño event this year. He claims NIWA’s reported 50% chance of an El Niño is not a prediction at all, but more akin to tossing a coin. This observation doesn’t stand up. NIWA doesn’t say every year that there’s a 50% chance of an El Niño. They were drawing attention to current developments which point in the direction of an El Niño.

Nevertheless de Freitas presumably sees his observation as a useful build-up to his planned attack. His next step is to comment on how incredibly complex climate systems are, and to quote no less an authority than Albert Einstein who said of the weather that prediction for even a few days ahead is impossible. Incidentally I’ve never seen a climate scientist claiming to predict the weather next week. But in de Freitas’ mind this leads to a climax:

The problem is complicated by the fact that the public usually fear the worst, and fear sells. So, if the period for which the prediction is made is beyond the end of the climate scientist’s lifetime, such as with long-term predictions of human-caused climate change, or “global warming”, any scary prediction will attract attention and hopefully also research funds or job promotion.

There follows a comment which perhaps is intended to qualify, but is vague and undeveloped and certainly does not undo the damaging assertion which precedes it:

Many experts passionately declare they believe future climate will be dramatically different due to human action. However, the challenge in climate science is correctly attributing cause.

He then returns to El Niño and after some reflection on how difficult it is to predict El Niño events advises preparedness to adapt to drought and flood. Without any recognition of irony he concludes:

The emphasis needs to be on dealing with the social, political and economic impediments that prevent effective flood-risk or drought-risk reduction.

The Herald has hosted a sloppy article which despicably insinuates that climate scientists are deliberately overstating the risks of climate change in order to attract attention and increase their funding and job prospects. It’s a familiar claim in the denial industry, but surely not one that our leading newspaper should allow in the face of the overwhelming scientific judgment that the the findings of climate science are  authentic.

I can think of no journalistic standard to justify opening a responsible newspaper’s opinion pages to a propagandistic accusation which casually defames the integrity of thousands of climate scientists.

Gareth adds: NIWA’s stated probability of an El Niño event looks conservative, as the Herald article to which de Freitas responds points out. For a regularly updated outlook, I recommend the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s web site here. BOM’s current expectation (issued on April 22nd) notes:

The likelihood of El Niño remains high, with all climate models surveyed by the Bureau now indicating El Niño is likely to occur in 2014. Six of the seven models suggest El Niño thresholds may be exceeded as early as July.

Kevin Trenberth, in a video interview with Peter Sinclair, suggests that the only question now left to answer is how big the coming El Niño event will be. Skeptical Science looks at that question here, and NIWA has a useful explanation of what impacts El Niño events are likely to have on weather in New Zealand.

El Niño events are also associated with spikes in global temperature as ocean heat is released to the atmosphere and heat transfer to the deep ocean is slowed. The earlier this event gets going, the bigger the impact on this year’s temperatures will be, but it is likely that the biggest impact on global average temperature will be in 2015. Joe Romm has more on that at Climate Progress.