Uncharted Territory

April 8, 2010

Cold FT

Filed under: FT, Global warming, Media, Science, Science and the media — Tim Joslin @ 5:54 pm

I wrote earlier, in relation to a story in today’s Guardian, that: “Solving the GW problem is difficult enough without the constant drip-feed of confusing reporting of the issue.” Even worse, though, is when influential media editors themselves appear to be confused by sceptics. A colleague has drawn my attention to a recent FT editorial and a subsequent letter by David Henderson, who, it turns out, is a campaigning sceptic.

On close inspection, the FT editorial is troubling. It appears to support sceptic attempts to undermine climate science.

The FT’s first point is that scientists “must be open about sharing the data that underlie their findings”. Fine, we’ve all long since been agreed on that. But data has not been systematically kept as secret as some would have you believe.

The FT goes on to say, though, that “scientists should devote more effort to observation”. Worryingly, the FT seems to believe there is some doubt about the veracity of the recent temperature record. This is simply not the case. There is some debate about whether it was as warm – globally, or, more likely, just regionally – several centuries ago, during the so-called Medieval Warming Period, as it has been over the last couple of decades. This question will not be resolved by gathering more data now, and in any case will become increasingly academic as the world warms over the coming decades.

The FT concludes by suggesting that “scientists should give weight to all the evidence, not just the consensus”. This is confused on two levels. Debates about “the evidence” – data – are matters of detail, and the IPCC already reports differing findings.

What the sceptics really want is for the IPCC to “give weight to” different interpretations of the data. But many possible causes of warming, for example variations in solar output, are already taken account of. They are incorporated into the energy balance model that informs mainstream climate science. As Lionel Messi reminds us mere mortals, there’s always scope for improvement, of course. The next IPCC report is likely to reflect, for example, the improved understanding gained over the past few years of how natural climate cycles affect the way the planet is warming.

What’s left are alternative paradigms such as the idea that variations in the solar wind could cause fluctuations in the flux of cosmic rays entering the Earth’s atmosphere which in turn could affect cloud cover and hence climate. At present this explanation seems a little contrived and there are serious gaps in understanding. Research may eventually determine an effect that should be included in climate models. To ask the IPCC to “give weight to” the cosmic ray theory as an alternative explanation, though, simply makes no sense. It would be like asking someone doing a jigsaw to make use of pieces that belong to a different puzzle. The only way the cosmic ray theory – or any other explanation of the data – would make sense is if it is coupled with proof that greenhouse gases will not have the warming effect predicted by the vast majority of climate scientists.

Most students of the history of science would not recognise modern climate science as in crisis. The theory remains entirely coherent, without having to invoke ad hoc means to “save the appearances”, unlike for example cosmology, which over the last few decades has had to invent dark matter, dark energy and the rapid inflation of the early universe.

The FT appears to share the general confusion following, not just “climategate”, but years of sceptic sniping and deliberately and unintentionally misleading reporting of the complex global warming issue.

Sceptics such as David Henderson are now taking advantage by dramatically exaggerating every potential flaw in the scientific process, like players on a losing football team feigning serious injury at the slightest provocation, in the hope that the referee will red card the opposition.

In fact, the way Henderson goes on in his letter you’d imagine all collective human endeavour is doomed to failure. How did we ever manage to organise ourselves to bring down a single woolly mammoth, let alone put a man on the Moon?

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