The Dominion Post, the newspaper of record for New Zealand’s capital city, today gave great prominence to an opinion piece by high profile climate denialists Bob Carter and Bryan Leyland titled Hypothetical global warming: scepticism needed1. It’s a “Gish Gallop” of untruths, half-truths and misrepresentations — a piece so riddled with deliberate errors and gross misrepresentations that it beggars belief that any quality newspaper would give it space.
I will deal with the factual errors in a moment, but the DomPost‘s lack of editorial judgement extends well beyond any failure to fact check the article. Carter and Leyland’s expertise on the issue is misrepresented. The newspaper’s readers are not given a true picture of their “standing”. They are in fact paid/sponsored propagandists, way out on the crank fringes. Here’s how Carter is credited.
Professor Bob Carter is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of NZ. His expertise is in geology and paleoclimatology — deducing past climates from geological records. He has written several books on climate change.
All of that is true2, but it is far from a full picture. In fact, Carter has been a propagandist against action on climate change since the 1990s, with a history of paid work with and for far-right wing organisations in Australia and the USA – including being paid by the notorious Heartland Institute in the US to produce shoddy pseudo-academic publications. In the right wing Australian journal Quadrant, where links to right wing organisations obviously play well, Carter’s credit runs like this:
Bob Carter is an Emeritus Fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and Chief Science Advisor to the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC).
The IPA campaigns against climate action, and Carter recently starred in its Climate: Change the facts tour around Australia promoting a new propaganda pamphlet. As an adviser to the ICSC — a group attempting to promote climate denial around the world, he works to:
“…directly educate the public about what science, engineering and economics are really concluding about climate change and the downside of misguided plans (e.g., wind turbines, “carbon sequestration”, etc.) to “solve the crisis”. This includes newspaper articles, letters to the editor, radio and TV interviews, public presentations, regular postings on our, and others’, Web sites and use of all forms of popular social media.”
In other words, Carter and Leyland managed to con the DomPost into playing along with their propaganda campaign.
The DomPost credits Leyland thus:
Bryan Leyland is an engineer specialising in renewable energy. He is an accredited reviewer for the IPCC and has contributed several articles on renewable energy technologies to overseas publications.
In fact, Leyland has a long track record of activism against action to reduce carbon emissions. He was a founder member of the NZ Climate Science Coalition and a trustee of the NZ Climate Science Education Trust — formed to bring a court action against NIWA’s handling of the national temperature record. When the case was lost, the trust was folded so that Leyland and his fellow trustees could avoid paying $90,000 of court-ordered costs.
Leyland is notorious in NZ media circles for his attempts to push climate denial. It beggars belief that the DomPost did not know about his track record, and went ahead with publishing an article under his name without prominently noting his role as an activist.
As propagandists, the product that Leyland and Carter are pushing is doubt — a tactic first used by the tobacco industry, but since refined by fossil fuel interests keen to avoid emissions cuts. Leyland and Carter “win” every time a mainstream media outlet gives their views credence by giving them prominence. Newspapers do not regularly provide platforms for cranks, but that is exactly what Leyland and Carter are, as we shall see in a moment.
24 ways to be wrong about climate
Let’s be clear about this. The errors and misdirections outlined below are not mistakes. They are not reasonable constructions that an independent commentator might make when looking at the totality of the evidence. They are arguments deliberately selected to present a distorted picture of reality.
The article gets off to a bad start with this opening sentence.
1: We are constantly told that man-made carbon dioxide has caused global warming that will bring doom and disaster in a few years.
Wrong. Man-made CO2 has certainly caused global warming (IPCC, 2014), but very few people — and certainly no scientists predict doom and disaster in the near future. All bets are off for the latter half of this century, however.
2: These predictions are largely based on the output of computer models, rather than observations of what is happening in the real world.
Wrong. Paleoclimate — supposedly one of Carter’s specialities — tells us a great deal about what may happen as CO2 rises. The models are useful for giving us an idea of what might happen in the future and what we can do to affect the outcome.
3: – the world has not experienced any significant warming over the last 18 years –
Wrong. There has been some slowdown in the upwards trend of surface temperatures — the so-called “hiatus”, but no reduction in the amount of heat accumulating in the system — mainly in the oceans.
4: – more accurate satellite records –
Wrong. Satellites estimate temperature of layers of the atmosphere by using the same radiation transfer calculations as the climate models so derided by Leyland and Carter. The satellite record is interesting and useful, but cannot stand in or substitute for real temperature measurements taken at the earth’s surface.
5: – models “failed to predict this lack of warming”.
Wrong. There has been no lack of warming. Model runs are not forecasts, but when the model runs are examined, those that most closely match what’s happened over the last 15 years (such as the state of the El Niño Southern Oscillation) track recent temperatures well3.
6: We can now be confident that man-made carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming and that the predictions of computer models of the climate are worthless.
Wrong. Carter and Leyland may assert their personal confidence, but that is not shared by the vast majority — 97% or thereabouts, however it is measured — of the scientists with genuine expertise in this field. To act on their say-so would be like backing a three-legged horse in the Melbourne Cup.
7: Global sea ice area is well above the 1979-2013 average.
Wrong. Over the last 35 years global sea ice area has declined by 35,000 square kilometres per year, or about -1.5% per decade. (Source)
8: In the Arctic it is close to average…
Wrong. This week’s Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis from the NSIDC in the US reports that last month had the third lowest February ice extent in the satellite record, and suggests that there is a possibility that this year could set a new record for lowest sea ice maximum extent.
9: In the Antarctic it is at the highest level since 1979…
Wrong. The February extent of 3.58m km2 according to the NSIDC was the fourth highest summer minimum extent on record, trailing behind 2008 (3.75m km2), 2013, and 2003.
10: Once again, there is a large disparity between the computer based predictions of ever increasing loss of sea ice and reality.
Correct, but misleading. Models have consistently underestimated sea ice decline in the Arctic.
11: …rate of sea level rise has slowed…
Wrong. According to the IPCC, the rate of sea level rise has accelerated in recent decades, and is expected to increase further as warming melts land-based ice.
12: Polar bears
Still listed as endangered, and continued loss of sea ice — their preferred hunting grounds — will increase pressure on bear numbers. See this excellent recent overview for a realistic assessment of the state of the bears.
13: Coral atolls are not disappearing beneath rising oceans.
Misdirection. Coral atolls have not yet disappeared, but conditions for human habitation on a number islands — including Tuvalu — are becoming difficult, and will become impossible later in this century if sea level rise continues as expected by the experts.
14: About 15,000 years ago sea levels were rising at 3m a century and coral atolls and the Great Barrier Reef survived.
True. But there were no human populations on Pacific Islands at the time. 3m per century rise over the next century would be catastrophic for cities and populations all round the world. The “survival” of reefs would be the least of our worries.
15: Glaciers are retreating some areas and advancing in others.
Trivially true but hugely misleading, because the number of retreating glaciers far outweighs the few advancing. The World Glacier Monitoring Service estimates non-polar land ice (glaciers and ice caps) are losing mass at an increasing rate.
16: 5,000 years ago the European Alps had less ice than now and the Canadian tree line lay further north.
Misleading. That was during the Holocene optimum, when northern hemisphere regions were receiving more summer warmth than now due to Milankovitch cycles in the earth’s orbit. It tells us nothing about what will happen when the planet “catches up” with the heating effect of current atmospheric CO2 levels.
17: Historical records show that the world was warmer during the Middle Ages Warm Period.
Wrong. This is a canard, one much beloved of climate cranks, but not supported by current science. Some parts of the world may have been as warm as today, but it was not a global phenomenon.
18: Ocean acidification … the ocean is alkaline and is at no more risk of becoming acidic …
Puerile misdirection. “Acidification” is the process of becoming more acidic, and that is what is measured to be happening as CO2 dissolves into the world’s oceans. CO2 + H2O = carbonic acid. The effect on oceanic ecosystems will be huge.
19: Increased levels of carbon dioxide have boosted plant growth worldwide … modern greenhouses burn natural gas to double the CO2 concentration and hence increase production by 40%.
True, up to a point, but also a huge misdirection. Increasing CO2 will benefit some plants, some of the time, but not all. Any benefits will be offset by increasing droughts, floods and heatwaves and rapid polewards migration and distortion of ecosystems.
20: … an IPCC study shows that the frequency of droughts has hardly changed and cyclones have declined …
Misdirection. Studies show increases in rainfall extremes, heatwaves and other weather extremes, and these will increase (as will droughts) as the climate system warms.
21: The British Meteorological Office has predicted that the current lack of warming will continue until 2018 at least.
But they’re using climate models, and those can’t be trusted! The hypocrisy burns.
22: Scientists who study natural climate cycles and the effect of the sun and sunspot cycles on the climate believe that the world has — or soon will — enter a cooling cycle.
This really is crank fringe nonsense. About as credible as backing that three legged horse for a Melbourne Cup/Aintree Grand National double.
23: Most mainstream climate scientists agree that 2 degrees C extra of warming would not be harmful
Nonsense. “Most mainstream climate scientists” understand that 2 degrees of warming will cause a great deal of damage to the climate system. 2ºC is a political target, not a scientific one.
24: The obvious conclusion is that the science is not settled.
The obvious conclusion is that Carter and Leyland are desperately trying to sell “doubt at any price”. The real climate debate is not a scientific debate, or a debate about the science, it’s about how we deal with an issue which is going to shape the lives of everyone over the next few hundred years. Carter and Leyland are selling all our futures to satisfy their inflated egos — and to please the people who sponsor, support and pay for their activities.
Nothing that I write here or that is written in the Dominion Post is likely to change the views of Carter and Leyland, because they are not wedded to science and a rational assessment of climate risk. Their loyalty is to a cause, and they will be counting their DomPost article as a major triumph. The newspaper, however, faces a very big problem. Their 25th mistake.
Giving climate cranks prominence in the paper, and to allow them to misrepresent the facts in such a cavalier manner, is a gross disservice to the DomPost‘s readers, and a huge blow to the newspaper’s reputation. If the paper is really incapable of spotting nonsense when its offered to them, then what confidence can its readers have in its judgement on other matters? What can we expect next? The paper advocating in its leader column that a homeopath should be appointed minister of health?
Readers and other interested parties may wish to consider making a complaint to the editor, and if a satisfactory response is not received, pursue the matter further with the Press Council. As a bare minimum, I believe the Dominion Post should, as a matter of urgency:
- Apologise to its readers for publishing an opinion piece so riddled with deliberate errors and misdirection.
- Provide readers with a more accurate understanding of the activist backgrounds of Leyland and Carter.
- Publish and give greater prominence to a rejoinder from senior scientists with genuine expertise in climate science.
- Introduce guidelines that provide that opinion or comment pieces that make controversial or counterfactual claims are provided by authors with significant expertise in the area under discussion, or should be subject to fact-checking by people with the necessary expertise.
The Press Council’s own guidelines state that:
Material facts on which an opinion is based should be accurate.
…and that for comment and opinion pieces “requirements for a foundation of fact pertain”.
Leyland and Carter’s propaganda piece clearly falls foul of those guidelines. It is now up to the Dominion Post to address the issue and respond appropriately. It may help them if they consider the 2012 judgement by the Australian Communication and Media Authority against talkback host Alan Jones ands station 2GB, requiring them to take fact checking seriously, or the decision by the LA Times not to publish letters asserting climate change is not real:
Saying “there’s no sign humans have caused climate change” is not stating an opinion, it’s asserting a factual inaccuracy.
And factual inaccuracies should have no place in a newspaper that aspires to be a newspaper of record.
- On page A7 – opposite the leader. Not currently available on the web, but a scan has been posted on Twitter — see this comment below.
- Except perhaps for the professorship. Carter has no current academic affiliation that I know of, so I wonder why the DomPost is granting him that status? Surely he wouldn’t have misrepresented himself to the paper?
- See, for example, Huber and Knutti, Natural variability, radiative forcing and climate response in the recent hiatus reconciled, Nature Geoscience 7, 651–656 (2014) doi:10.1038/ngeo2228