April 1, 2013

Is The Economist Being Economical With The Truth About Climate Change?

Today is April 1st, Easter Monday 2013. However this tale is no joke. Before we get on to more serious matters would you care to join me in some festive fun? Let's play "spot the difference"! To get some images free from clouds I've gone back in time a couple of days into March. Having done that here's a bird's eye view of the Disko Bay area of western Greenland, taken on March 28th 2013:

The Disko Bay area of western Greenland on March 28th 2013

The Disko Bay area of western Greenland on March 28th 2013

Now here's one taken a year earlier, on March 28th 2012:

The Disko Bay area of western Greenland on March 28th 2012

The Disko Bay area of western Greenland on March 28th 2012

Do you notice any difference?

Whilst you ponder that question I'll endeavour to explain the relevance of the econnexus Easter quiz to the title of today's post. Fresh from enjoying the experience of having my constructive climate change comments deleted by the "Mail Online" a couple of weekends ago, I now bring you the fruits of my experience over the weekend on the The Economist web site. Just in case you're wondering, The Economist "online" does allow relevant links, and doesn't seem to delete relevant comments.

In their latest print edition The Economist includes a leader entitled "Apocalypse perhaps a little later" which says (amongst other things) that:

It is not clear why climate change has "plateaued" (see pages 81-83)

Frankly it is astonishing news to me to read that "climate change has plateaued" and for reasons I will explain shortly it ought to be astonishing to The Economist's leader writer also. Turning eagerly to page 81 I discovered an article in the "Science and technology" section, which begins as follows:

Climate science
A sensitive matter

The climate may be heating up less in response to greenhouse-gas emissions than was once thought. But that does not mean the problem is going away.

Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar.

Perhaps the Economist's leader writer is confusing "climate change" with the Economist's Science and Technology writer's "air temperatures at the Earth’s surface"? At least the leader writer gives the impression that they may recall having read James Astill's Economist Special Report entitled "The melting north" from June 16th 2012, in which he said (amongst other things) that:

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

The area of Arctic land covered by snow in early summer has shrunk by almost a fifth since 1966. But it is the Arctic Ocean that is most changed.

Scientists, scrambling to explain this, found that in 2007 every natural variation, including warm weather, clear skies and warm currents, had lined up to reinforce the seasonal melt. But last year [i.e. 2011] there was no such remarkable coincidence: it was as normal as the Arctic gets these days. And the sea ice still shrank to almost the same extent.

Of course since those words were written the Arctic has experienced the record shattering melting of sea ice during the summer of 2012. Mr. Astill went on to write:

There is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming. It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned. Because the atmosphere is shedding less solar heat, it is warming—a physical effect predicted back in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist. But why is the Arctic warming faster than other places?

In partial answer to that question he goes on to explain that:

The main reason for Arctic amplification is the warming effect of replacing light-coloured snow and ice with darker-coloured land or water. Because dark surfaces absorb more heat than light ones, this causes local warming, which melts more snow and ice, revealing more dark land or water, and so on. Known as the albedo effect, this turns out to be a more powerful positive feedback than most researchers had expected. Most climate models predicted that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer by the end of this century.

Are you beginning to see the connection with our Easter 2013 quiz question yet?  Returning to the present day from early summer 2012, the writer of "Climate science – A sensitive matter" seems to be unaware of any of this, since in their three page article they do mention "feedbacks", but the words "albedo" and "Arctic" are conspicuous only by their total absence. This is all the more surprising, to your humble scribe at least, since less than three weeks ago I attended The Economist's very own "Arctic Summit" in Oslo. The Economist invited a panel of scientists, who one must assume were considered by that august journal to be eminent in their respective fields, to briefly address the assembled throng. First to speak was Stefan Rahmstorf, Professor of Physics of the Oceans at Potsdam University, who gave an overview of his recently published scientific paper "Quasiresonant amplification of planetary waves and recent Northern Hemisphere weather extremes", which concludes (amongst other things) that:

The data and results we present suggest that atmospheric conditions already might have changed to the extent that the considered quasiresonant wave amplification may occur rather frequently. The most recent example might be the destructive heat waves in the United States and southern Europe accompanied by catastrophic floods in China and Japan in June–July 2012.

Stefan himself concluded his remarks in Oslo by saying that:

We know there is enough ice in Greenland to raise global sea level by 7 metres. We also know that the Greenland Ice Sheet has a critical warming threshold beyond which it will decay due to some kind of "vicious circle", so I think we should all care about the Arctic, and about stopping global warming as fast as we can.

With that message possibly still ringing in his ears the very same James Astill eventually concluded the session, which the event agenda described as "Assessing the risks of a melting Arctic", by asking the four panellists to take part in "a little quiz" with "reputations on the line". He asked:

What is your prediction for when we're going to get a largely ice free summer Arctic?

Stefan answered without hesitation "2040". James next asked Rear Admiral Jonathan White of the United States' Navy, who said:

I got asked this same question by an Admiral in the Navy a couple of months ago, but it was "when are we going to see one month of ice free conditions in the Arctic", ice free being defined as 15% or less ice coverage area wise. I said I think it's happening faster than we thought before. My predecessor said around 2030, and I'm saying 2023. About ten years, and that's pretty aggressive.

Having spoken to him a couple of times in Oslo, I can assure you that Rear Admiral White does not come across as the stereotypical loony left tree hugging environmental activist. All of which raises a big question, in my mind at least, which is:

What on Earth were The Economist thinking of when they printed the words "Apocalypse perhaps a little later" above their weekend leader? They surely can't have meant a little later than 2100 or even 2050. Did they actually mean a little later than The Day After Tomorrow?

In conclusion, for the moment at least, please note that according to their contents page, The Economist was:

First published in September 1843 to take part in "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress."

Need I say more? Perhaps only to ask what your own answer to my little festive quiz might be, and also your answer to James Astill's slightly earlier one should you be in a particularly festive mood today?

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Comments on Is The Economist Being Economical With The Truth About Climate Change? »

April 1, 2013

crandles @ 5:56 pm

Who am I to express a view? especially when I can just quote the words of a climate scientist:

http://julesandjames.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/economist-in-making-sense-shocker.html

"Somewhat to my surprise given my recent experience of the media, it seems to make a lot of sense. … but the rest of the article seems mostly pretty good too."

Seems a somewhat different opinion.

Jim @ 7:03 pm

Hi crandles,

It does indeed seem like a somewhat different opinion. No doubt variety is the spice of life?

I don't suppose I can tempt you to express your own view on the matter can I? Would you go so far as to say that "climate change has plateaued" is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, for example?

Jim

crandles @ 9:38 pm

"climate change has plateaued" seems particularly bad. I like

http://www.skepticalscience.com/pics/FR11_All.gif

to demonstrate that air temp adjusted for other effects shows a steady rise without hint of any slowing down let alone plateauing. "OVER the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat" is not as bad but still has a bad cherry-picking the start date problem.

Does this mean the articles concerned are immediately irreparably damaged? My opinion is no. The two articles are mainly about climate sensitivity and the story here is that recent temperatures are making high sensitivities less likely. If that is the story then the lack of warming has to play a part of it. Instead of explaining the complexity of whether there is a plateau or not, for this story, more time explaining that

"Does that mean the world no longer has to worry?
No, for two reasons. ….

Good policies—strategies for adapting to higher sea levels and changing weather patterns, investment in agricultural resilience, research into fossil-fuel-free ways of generating and storing energy—are wise precautions even in a world where sensitivity is low. So is putting a price on carbon and ensuring that, slowly but surely, it gets ratcheted up for decades to come.

If the world has a bit more breathing space to deal with global warming, that will be good. But breathing space helps only if you actually do something with it."

seems entirely appropriate to me. So basically a good article. (Slight shame about the 'climate change plateau' but that is a necessary part of the story and if explaining that better took up some room the message being told would be diluted. That is a bit of an ends justify the means let off on that point. But mainly it is a small problem that is not terribly relevant to the main story being told, therefore it a minor issue.)

Hope that clarifies my views.

April 2, 2013

Jim @ 10:54 am

Thanks crandles,

That does indeed clarify your views. However, I'm not sure the graph you link to would go down very well with the hordes currently commenting over at The Economist. Despite my repeated protestations to the contrary they kept accusing me of being a "SkepticalScience affiliate", which sounded rather like a euphemism for "in league with the Devil".

As a result of the "small problem" you refer to the "most popular" comments on The Economist's main story now say things like:

The uncertainty in computer projections of future temperature rises in response to CO2 has been grossly underplayed by people who should have known better.

and

This is one of the very very few articles that this reader has seen that critically examines the issue of the discrepancy between empirical and modelled results. Brilliant start, now can we have more journalists step forward to build on this article by holding these modelled results to account.

and

There has been no net warming since 1997 with CO2 up 8+%. The earth entered a cooling trend in about 2003 which is likely to last 30 years and maybe for hundreds of years beyond that. The IPCC climate models on which the entire CO2 phobia depends were and are so badly structured as to be inherently useless for temperature prediction.

Are such comments also "not terribly relevant to the main story being told", or should The Economist have chosen their words more carefully?

crandles @ 1:35 pm

Can't say I am terribly surprised at the comments going like that. Added a couple of replies which I am pretty sure won't do any good. Still there is an a good article in the Economist saying a carbon tax is a good policy. Who takes any notice of the comments compared to the articles?

Yes I would make a few changes if given the chance to make some edits. But obviously I wasn't offered such an opportunity.

April 3, 2013

Jim @ 9:21 am

Neither was I crandles, though I do feel that I could have offered some helpful suggestions!

Whilst one might hope that the average Economist subscriber would read the article rather than the online comments and hopefully gain some understanding of both the science and the nuances behind the Economist's quotes around "plateaued", does the same apply to the average Mail reader (see my link above) where the articles themselves are not so nuanced, and so called "warmist" comments on the Mail Online get deleted permanently or temporarily?

Mail readers have one vote apiece, just like Economist readers. Perhaps the Economist should have led with this line from their leader?

If climate policy continues to be this impotent, then carbon-dioxide levels could easily rise so far that even a low-sensitivity planet will risk seeing changes that people would sorely regret.

Karl Sanchez @ 10:14 pm

I found that The Economist to be one of the best magazines to excise articles from for students to read and analyze critically because they were often internally conflicting. I no longer teach, but this essay seems quite usual and a useful homework exercise. I saw Disko Bay on the 1st, was shocked and viewed it at 250m resolution. Personally, I think the massive cracking we're witnessing will become the new normal for Arctic winter ice until there is no more winter ice.

April 4, 2013

Jim @ 12:08 pm

Hi Karl,

NASA have just published the following picture, which goes some way towards explaining the currently shocking view of Disko Bay from the Terra satellite:

Global land surface temperature anomalies between March 14–20, 2013, courtesy of NASA

A different view of the same phenomenon can be seen in the March weather almanac for Ilulissat at Weather Underground.

In general terms I agree with you about The Economist, although I don't share their apparent enthusiasm for "economic growth" as the way out of our current predicament. I certainly think they should have been much more careful with their choice of "sensitive" words on this particular occasion.

April 5, 2013

Karl Sanchez @ 12:09 am

Thanks Jim. I just checked the temp at Nuuk–11C/52F at 10pm local time with a high today, 4 April, of 54F, http://www.timeanddate.com/weather/greenland/nuuk

Jim @ 7:54 am

Whereas here in "sunny" South West England we've had a cold easterly wind and sub-zero temperatures overnight for weeks:

A week has now passed since the image at the top of my article was recorded, so I invite you all to play "spot the difference" once more:

I also invite The Economist's leader writer to repeat their assertion that "climate change has 'plateaued'".

Tom Andersen @ 5:32 pm

Or could the melting greenland and arctic ice be something exactly like the warm 90-2005 winters that Europe had? i.e 15 years of weather. Time will tell. Snow came back to Europe, despite some predictions by the worlds best climate scientists that it would not.

Karl Sanchez @ 6:42 pm

Hi Jim,

I live on the Oregon coast, and the current temp at Nuuk is the same as here–52F–whereas Nuuk's forecasted high for today was 44F. Personally, I expect a major melt season on Greenland, one that will shock the experts. I also see the changing Acrtic climate dynamic having a serious impact on the EU's energy policy regarding the importation of NatGas.

The complacency I observe regarding events in the Cryosphere is alarming since I think there's a very realistic possibility that most of Greenland's ice will be melted–slid-off into the ocean is more likely–by 2100 that will allow those living to be the first humans to witness an event in Punctuated Catastorphism.

Jim @ 8:22 pm

Hi Tom,

Where do you live? What's happening to "the weather" in your neck of the woods?

Personally I doubt that what we're currently witnessing is "just another 15 years of weather". Albedo feedback has already kicked in for example. See the images above for one modest example. I'm not a professional climate scientist, but I have studied physics and modern control theory amongst other things, and I don't see any reasonably probable way that process can reverse in a decade or two.

Of course I might be wrong, but I'd still have invoked the precautionary principle long before now. There is no "Planet B" after all.

If Peter Wadhams et. al. are right and methane joins in the fun then Karl's predictions might well come true too. I certainly share his alarm at the "complacency" exhibited by the powers that be.

Time will indeed tell. It always does.

April 12, 2013

Susan Anderson @ 4:51 pm

I thought you might be interested that SkepticalScience has picked up an article by Mann and Nuccitelli:

http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2013/04/12/3735095.htm

(SkS here:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/further-comments-on-economist-climate-sensitivity.html

imho, JulesandJames, a "pure" science blog, doesn't take into account or care about the way their conclusions are twisted. afaik their science is sound, but that's a secondhand opinion from wise others because I know so little I'm unable to figure it out for myself.

You're doing great work!

April 13, 2013

Jim @ 8:44 am

Hi Susan,

Thanks for the heads up, and your kind words. Do you suppose that in this instance it's a good thing to be ahead of one of Michael Mann's curves?

As one of the commenters at SkepticalScience points out:

[The Economist] is a 'newspaper' widely read amongst decision makers all over the world.

What if most of those "decision makers" don't have the time and/or inclination to read long "scientific" articles and they only read the leaders? What if they never read SkS either, and instead take away The Economist's message that "climate change has 'plateaued'"?

April 14, 2013

Susan Anderson @ 4:18 am

Yes, we need some kind of coup de theatre bigger than Sandy and all the world places that have suffered climate extremes in recent years.

Also, the public needs to understand that these nasty cold bits are escapes from the Arctic and it is not altogether wrong to say, going but not returning, in a manner of speaking.

Your meticulousness and accuracy are terrific.

April 17, 2013

Jim @ 8:40 am

The Economist have now published a few letters to their editor on this controversial topic, under the heading of "A new climate?".

Prof. Anders Levermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says (amongst other things) that:

The IPCC’s range on sensitivity is supported by, but not merely based on, models. It is deeply rooted in physics. Quantum physics and thermodynamics, the same physical laws that underlie the functioning of our computers and power plants, yield a baseline climate sensitivity of about 3°C.

but The Economist leads those letters with one from Martin Livermore of the Scientific Alliance, who says (amongst other things) that:

What has become more and more obvious is that current climate-change policy is an expensive waste of time, merely exporting emissions to developing countries and hastening the decline of the European economy.

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