Catalyst teaches the controversy

I was at the gym just now and they had a rerun of a Catalyst story from October on the alleged climate change pause, presented by Anja Taylor. It was appalling. It started off correctly attributing the 1998 peak in warming to El Nino (with a shot of Richard Morecroft).

Next there was an unnamed speaker, suggesting that this presaged a permanent El Nino . This obvious straw man (it’s called the Southern Oscillation because it’s cyclical) was presented as if it represented the view of mainstream science, but the transcript attributes it to “reporter”. Clearly, Taylor was unable to get any vision of an actual scientist making this claim.

Next, four denialists (Monckton, Paltridge, Newman and Curry) and an editorial intervention from Taylor asserting the “pause” as a reality, with some super-shoddy graphs. Then a flashback to Climategate.

After this setup, things got gradually better. Some real scientists were brought on, and we eventually reached the conclusion “All things considered, there’s been no global warming pause”. But anyone watching the program would conclude that the sceptics had a pretty strong case.

The problem is that this kind of “teach the controversy” approach is utterly inappropriate for a TV science program. In this case, the problem is (as the program admits) that the majority of the time is given to a view held by a tiny minority of scientists, so few that Taylor had to give air time to two non-scientists and one who has gone emeritus. But even on a topic where scientists are actually divided, a 15-minute TV segment isn’t going to help clarify the issues.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is typical of Catalyst nowadays. I used to think it was just Maryanne Demasi, but obviously the producers want to present “he said, she said” controversy. It’s time for the ABC to pull the plug.

59 thoughts on “Catalyst teaches the controversy

  1. for example people are described as “dishonest” and “deceptive”

    Anyone who asserts “there has been NO global warming in X years” where X is their favorite number is dishonest. Amplification has nothing to do with it.

  2. @J-D

    Very succinct and correct as far I understand it. And I do understand enough for science for this level. It really shouldn’t be too hard for anyone with a basic science education, certainly with grade 12 physics and chemistry and maybe even with grade 10 physics and chemistry, to understand this.

    I guess problems arise for two basic reasons.

    1. A lot of people don’t have even this basic scientific literacy or need a refresher course.

    2. As soon as you raise these basic empirical points, the denialists will go to phase 2 of their operation. This is to bring up alternative points which sound plausible as hypotheses and then have to be falsified by a new round of tests or rather now by a new round of science knowledge education for the undecided or the still “swayable” since the tests have been done.

    An example of phase two “reasonable doubt” objections are that water vapour is a greenhouse gas. TRUE. Water vapour is much more prevalent than CO2 in the atmosphere. TRUE (I think, but see I am not even totally sure). Therefore as CO2 is a minuscule amount by comparsion and water vaopor (humidty) goes up and down a lot then CO2 is irrelevant and any current percent increase of it is irrelevant. (FALSE – But I would have to reread the IPCC explanation myself before I could explain to anyone else why this is false.)

    Other examples are claims about solar luminesece cycles, precession, orbital inconsistencies, long cycles around the sun (Milankovitch cycles) and so on. All these are dealt with and excluded with high degrees of certainty by IPCC as full explanations of current warming, leaving CO2 emissions as the main smoking gun. But again these objections can bamboozle people and dishonestly obscure the fact that these hypotheses have been considered and rejected as explanations for current warming.

    And so it goes. The thing is that in a sense a physical truth or law is often unitary and exclusive (well obviously not quantum mechanics, probabilistic theory etc.) whereas falsehood is multifareous. The active “moral entrepreneur” deniers can keep making up falsehoods based on half truths and truths taken out of context to their hearts’ content. Energy has to be expended and information continually issued and expanded to deal with this ongoing manufacture of deceit.

  3. @Ikonoclast
    Water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas: its residency time in the atmosphere is quite short though, having a tendency to condense and to rain out. CO2 is also a strong greenhouse gas: its residency time is a couple of orders of magnitude longer than water vapour. The increased surface temperature, due to increasing concentration of CO2, increases the rate and intensity with which water is evaporated, thus enhancing the overall greenhouse effect. Changes to the temperature of the surface air has an extraordinary effect upon evaporation.

    While what I have described is a bit simplistic, it gives the gist of why the CO2 emissions are significant: not only is CO2 a greenhouse gas, but its effect causes other significant changes to take place, such as increased uptake of water vapour into the atmosphere. As noted above, once in the air, water vapour soon rains out—somewhere.

    Slow changes to the orbit of Earth around the sun (Milankovitch cycles) do cause climate change—over thousands of years. The climate change of most concern to humanity is that which we are causing through our own actions, climate change that is happening one or two orders of magnitude more rapidly than natural cycles cause. This is why it is so disingenuous of the PM Abbott to say “climate changes all the time,” because that is not the issue at hand.

    The energy output of the sun is another favourite. On extremely long timescales of hundreds of millions of years, the output of the sun has changed significantly; this is of no urgent concern on human timescales. On relatively short timescales, days to weeks to decades, the sun also fluctuates in its energy output (per unit time); these fluctuations, apart from the well-known eleven year solar cycle, have no consistent effect upon climate—they are simply too small and too random. Unfortunately, it takes some pretty clever statistical analysis to determine the strength of any short term effects upon climate, which means that most of us have to rely on experts, rather than doing the analyses ourselves. Anyway, this type of analysis of solar output’s effects has been done by quite a number of scientific organisations, and more than once, i.e. the data is updated periodically.

    I find it ludicrous that Australian tax payers are forced to expend huge resources and time on catching a miniscule number of actual terrorists, putting our entire population under surveillance in the hope of catching a handful of terrorist plots and foiling them; contrast that to the political undermining and then active destruction of our attempts at a rational climate change risk management strategy, simply to win short term political gain. Noone wants to see a terrorist attack, but which risk has the potentially greater impact across our population?

  4. @Donald Oats

    Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. I roughly remembered the water vapour part of the process but not enough to feel authoritative in re-telling it to someone. I would, as I said, have had to go back to IPCC overviews on the basic mechanism to brush up. But you’ve saved me the trouble.

    Of course, the whole water vapor part of the story is very complex: rapid uptake, rapid throughput, rapid precipitation in relative time-frame terms. Then there’s humidity averages, gradients, regional effects, cloud albedo, heat circulation in the atmosphere, winds, storms, updrafts, downdrafts, you name it. It’s a complicated field no doubt. But then there are large teams of very smart Cli Sci PhDs with super computers and some pretty dang fine climate models already tested in various ways. Then there’s the fact that the data series to date basically validates the CO2 emissions – warming hypthesis. Empirical confirmation! That clinches it for me.

  5. Thanks for the explanations. I guess I understand it pretty well, but ultimately have to trust the scientists who work in the area.

    Of course that is what the “skeptics” rely on. Their target audience is people who don’t understand it, but think that it can’t be that hard. They try and “baffle them with bullshit”, which works pretty well some of the time.

    But I reckon that we’ve actually reached the time when people have stopped listening to the “skeptics” (except of course for some members of our esteemed government).

  6. This article by Brian Kahn really highlights the manifest idiocy of talking about a “pause” or “hiatus” in global temperature increases:

    Consider that the 15 hottest years on record have all come since 1997. Or that this will be the third straight decade to break the mark for global temps. And that it’s been 358 months since the planet had a cooler-than-average month, and more than 100 years since we last had a record-cold month.

    If there were a pause, or if temperatures weren’t increasing, we certainly wouldn’t expect the hottest X years on record to be crowded up one end of the time period (typically 1880 to present): we would expect some cooler years mixed in with the hotter ones at the very least. Even with autocorrelation. Even with some growth in global temperatures. What we are seeing is so extreme it makes my eyes water to look at it. Trouble is, show this to a politician with the stripes of PM Tony Abbott, and all he’ll think is that scientists have rigged the data. I used to think that it was just the paid-up deniers whispering in the ears of politicians which kept the politicians confused; in the case of our PM though, I’m now more inclined to think it is that our politicians (of that stripe) project their own behaviour onto scientists, and therefore conclude that the scientists are acting in their own self interest, i.e. lying.

  7. @John Brookes

    As a child I read a book called What Makes A Car Go? I trust that the account given in the book was accurate and as a result I can say that I understand how a car works. Similarly, I trust that what I have read about the greenhouse effect is accurate and as a result I can say that I understand how it works.

    Sometimes when people explain things to me, I don’t understand the explanation. Sometimes I understand the explanation but am not confident it’s accurate. These are two different experiences. Not accepting an account of how the greenhouse effect works is not the same thing as not understanding it.

  8. @J-D

    Yes, I understand how a car works. But with that knowledge only, I could not tell you how much power a car engine could make, how many cylinders are optimum, what type of fuel to use, how much cooling is needed, etc etc etc. When this comes to global warming, I understand how it works (sort of), but not how big the effect is. Is it 0.01 C or 10 C? That is when I turn to the scientists and simply trust the process to produce good results.

  9. @John Brookes

    If you had said in the first place that you don’t understand how a specific estimate is made of the extent of global warming to be expected from a specified increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, I would not have tried to offer an explanation, because I don’t understand that either.

    But I do have experience of people who make a lot of fuss about the alleged unreliability of science on this subject but who, when confronted with a basic explanation of how the greenhouse effect works, will neither acknowledge it nor deny it. This is why I think it’s worth being clear on the point.

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