Whale meat again – Slater’s climate pseudoskeptic siren songs

By Gareth Renowden 06/05/2014

New Zealand’s highest traffic blog is Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil Beef Hooked (try saying it in an Irish accent) — an aggressive right-wing sensationalist blog not noted for its delicate approach to current affairs. Unsurprisingly, Slater is an outspoken climate pseudoskeptic, with a long history of posts rubbishing climate science and the reality of climate change. This morning’s effort — The Cognitive Dissonance Of The Media On Climate Change — is pretty much par for Slater’s course, but riffs on an interesting new paper about the potential for serious additional ice loss from Antarctica which has been getting quite a bit of local media coverage (Stuff, RNZ News).

Slater’s complaint is straightforward enough: he relies on Monckton’s latest temperature trend cherry pick at µWatts and Climate Depot to demonstrate that there’s “no global warming for the last 17 years and 9 months”, shows a graph of the current increase in Antarctic sea ice, and then complains that because the NZ media has given prominence to a new study by Matthias Mengel and Anders Levermann at the Potsdam Institute1 that finds that a large chunk of the East Antarctic ice sheet could be vulnerable if warming continues, then the media must be biased. As he puts it:

These scaremongering scenarios really do show the cognitive dissonance of the mainstream media and their inability to look dispassionately at the evidence before us, instead they push political lines. All of their stories have “could”, “should”, “might” and “maybe” qualifiers.

Unfortunately, Slater’s the one with the cognitive dissonance. His “dispassionate” look at the evidence is anything but, and his aggressive rejection of the new ice sheet evidence — “This report doesn’t sound plausible at all, it sounds like horse crap to me” — appears to be based entirely on his own lack of understanding of ice sheet dynamics.

Let’s look at Slater’s choice of counter evidence. Monckton’s “17 years” is straightforwardly misleading for two main reasons. The first is handily summarised by Skeptical Science’s well-known “Escalator” graph:

Picking periods of negative or no trend in the surface temperature record2 tells us nothing about the long term — in which warming is unequivocal — or about the big picture, in which heat continues to accumulate in the system. Ice melts, oceans warm, heatwaves and storms get worse.

Next Slater shows the current NSIDC graph of Antarctic sea ice extent. It’s running above average as the ice heads towards its winter maximum. He doesn’t show you the equivalent NSIDC graph of Arctic sea ice, which is running well below the 1981-2010 average, or acknowledge that Greenland and Antarctica are losing ice mass, or that the world’s glaciers are melting away rapidly. Looking at Antarctic sea ice on its own tells us nothing about the big picture. In other words, it’s another cherry ripe for the picking, designed to mislead the unwary.

Slater’s final argument amounts to little more than “it’s cold in Antarctica, so the ice won’t melt” — which shows that he doesn’t understand the key point about the new research. From the Science Daily report:

“East Antarctica’s Wilkes Basin is like a bottle on a slant,” says lead-author Matthias Mengel, “once uncorked, it empties out.” The basin is the largest region of marine ice on rocky ground in East Antarctica. Currently a rim of ice at the coast holds the ice behind in place: like a cork holding back the content of a bottle. While the air over Antarctica remains cold, warming oceans can cause ice loss on the coast. Ice melting could make this relatively small cork disappear — once lost, this would trigger a long term sea-level rise of 300-400 centimeters. “The full sea-level rise would ultimately be up to 80 times bigger than the initial melting of the ice cork,” says co-author Anders Levermann.

Warming ocean waters are already causing ice loss in West Antarctica — particularly around the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers that flow into the Amundsen Sea, which are both likely to become “unpinned” in the same way Mengel and Levermann have modelled for the Wilkes Basin — but a lot sooner.

It’s tempting to write off Slater’s misunderstandings and misrepresentation as just another example of political ideology trumping uncomfortable fact, but with his sizeable audience and hotline to key government figures such as Prime Minister John Key, recently fired cabinet minister Maurice Wilkinson and the beleaguered minister of justice Judith Collins, it’s reasonable to ask to what extent Slater’s aggressive denial of climate reality is something the government is quite happy to hide behind. They are certainly not acting as if they take the problem seriously.

  1. M. Mengel, A. Levermann. Ice plug prevents irreversible discharge from East Antarctica. Nature Climate Change, 2014; DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2226
  2. See also Colin Sharples’ superb demonstration of the effects of changing trend windows in this classic Hot Topic post from 2009.