Monday, August 20, 2012

Climate change is wrong because …

Wired has this long piece by Matt Ridley. I’m not Wired, but I’m in a rebuttal kind of mood …

I’ll sum up Ridley’s argument this way: apocalyptic scientists are always wrong, so stop worrying about climate change.

The problems with the article are so many (his discussion of infectious disease gets down to the plainly silly) that I have to pick just the high points:

  1. Misdirection
  2. Blaming the scientist for the media
  3. Ignoring the caveats
  4. Misrepresentation

  1. Misdirection

Ridley is happy enough to attack Rachel Carson – but not over her science. He doesn’t address her writings at all; rather, he devotes more than 100 words to attacking not Carson, but “her chief inspiration” Wilhelm Hueper.

Ridley then goes on to smear Carson’s warnings about environmental chemicals and cancer with this throwaway: “cancer incidence and death rates … have been falling now for 20 years.” Cancer research, of course, has stood still that entire time, and DDT use has grown – right?

  1. Blaming the scientist for the media

In discussing air pollution, Ridley cites not a scientist as his first source, but Time. It’s a well-established way to attack science: blame the media’s handling of science stories on the scientists themselves (we saw this in 2011 and 2012 in the “faster than light neutrino” story: the press first played up the wildest possibility, then blamed the scientists when their preferred outcome didn’t eventuate).

Some scientists “throw the switch to vaudeville” – and frequently get called out by other scientists. More often, in my experience, the “apocalypse” happens when journalists cherry-pick the extreme end of the projections to get a better headline.

The majority of sources Ridley cites are not scientists, but journalists - with a couple of economists, one medical doctor, a politician and TV presenter thrown in for colour. In what way do their witterings cast doubt on sicence?

  1. Ignoring the caveat

Ridley then goes on to blame the scientists for presenting an apocalypse that didn’t happen. He freely admits that regulation helped cut air pollution emissions – but obfuscates the cause-and-effect: people applied regulation to polluters because the science predicted dangers. Blaming the scientist for the lack of apocalypse is just silly.

The caveat on DDT in the 60s, air pollution, and the ozone hole in the 80s was always the same caveat: “unless we do something”.

If government and private enterprises actually take action to avoid a problem – it’s stupid to then say “see? The science was wrong!”

  1. Misrepresentation

“There was an international agreement to cease using CFCs by 1996. But the predicted recovery of the ozone layer never happened: The hole stopped growing before the ban took effect”, Ridley writes.

First and foremost: on the current trend, Ridley is flat-out wrong. According to NASA, the peak size of the Southern Hemisphere ozone hole in 2011 was 12 percent smaller than in 2006.

More seriously, Ridley isn’t presenting the whole facts on the CFC phaseout:

  1. The 1996 ban was the end of the reduction process, not the beginning; and
  2. Developing nations were given until 2010 to complete their phase-out.

In Australia, for example, nearly 90 percent of CFC reduction predated the 1996 ban agreed in the Montreal Protocol. Any sensible developed nation did likewise.

We should also remember that the protocol gave developing nations until 2010 to complete their phase-out. I don’t propose researching the trajectory of the entire developing world, but you get the point: emissions stopped growing, and so did the ozone hole. But we have a lot of CFCs still to get out of the system.

Scientists said “if emissions continue to rise, this will happen”. Politicians took their advice (and the economy didn’t collapse for lack of CFCs), and emissions didn’t rise.

Only reluctantly – and late in the article – does Ridley note that some of the “apocalyptic” scenarios he derides were “averted by action”.

Action followed scientific fact; it’s depressing that people will still smear scientists because of what journalists write about them.


KAP said...

emissions stopped growing, and so did the ozone hole. But we have a lot of ozone still to get out of the system.

Should be, "we still have a lot of CFC's to get out of the system."

Also see the rebuttal on Skeptical Science today.

Richard Chirgwin said...

KAP - thanks for that, corrected!