Climate Brief

February 17, 2009

The past week has seen a raft of developments relating to climate change in addition to the troubling comments made on the subject by NASA’s James Hansen (discussed here).

From a report on the prospects for Scottish birdlife, to a devastating prognosis for tropical forests issued by Professor Chris Field (a co-chair of the IPCC), from a demand by Australia’s firefighters for drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to UNEP’s call for a global green “new deal” and from a terrifying study which points to a strong correlation between rising temperatures and the spread of malaria in Kenya’s highlands. From a report on the future of the world’s (already massively stressed) fisheries…

The news keeps coming in.

Perhaps the most important development was the aforementioned speech given by Chris Field at a meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago. As the Guardian’s Ian Sample reported, the professor told his learned audience that “Higher temperatures could see wildfires raging through the tropics and a large scale melting of the Arctic tundra, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere that will accelerate warming even further.”

With time running out to formulate a new global agreement, Field also made the startling admission that “the IPCC’s last report on climate change in 2007 had substantially underestimated the severity of global warming over the rest of the century.”

Emissions across the world had either not been significantly reined in (step forward, the British government) or have dramatically increased (China and India being major culprits here). Meanwhile, scientists have come to look more closely at the possibility that feedback cycles could accelerate warming after “tipping points” in key earth systems are surpassed. For example, the melting of Siberia’s permafrost could release massive quantities of methane – a highly potent greenhouse gas. The IPCC did not consider the impact of such non-linear shifts.

As Field told the AAAS, the world’s tropical forests face just such a “tipping point.”

“Tropical forests are essentially inflammable” he said, “You couldn’t get a fire to burn there if you tried. But if they dry out just a little, the result can be very large and destructive wildfires. It is increasingly clear that as you produce a warmer world, lots of forested areas that had been acting as carbon sinks could be converted to carbon sources.”

This represents a passionate call for rapid action to generate huge cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And it also represents a scientist taking a frankly passionate – and radical – stance before a gathering of his colleagues, which is more striking still. In comparison to James Hansen’s reticence in approving activism directed at airport expansion, Field’s rhetoric is explosive.

Anyone would think that Field has made the judgement that speaking in this way is important, if public pressure is to be brought to bear on politicians as Kopenhagen approaches.

Surely only the most fervent climate change denier would quibble with such a judgement call? Well, that’s sadly not the case. The past week also saw the publication of a controversial op-ed penned by Vicky Pope, the “head of climate change advice at the Met Office Hadley Centre” which was also carried by the Guardian.

Pope’s theme was a simple one. According to her view of things, the press – and scientists contributing to the press – has been at fault for over-stressing “apocalyptic” predictions. Labelling scientists as attention seekers by linking extreme weather events (such as recent snow falls in Britain and Australia’s drought) to anthropogenic climate change, Pope took pains to slap them down.

In [the] Pope’s opinion, “The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change. This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.” This, essentially amounted to a call for rigorous self censorship amongst scientists.

Pope has little time for activists, lumping those who seek to raise public awareness of the impacts of climate change in with those who deny the possibility of mankind altering the climate altogether. Speaking about those who attribute losses in Greenland’s ice sheet to global warming, she laments that “natural variability has been ignored in order to support a particular point of view, with climate change advocates leaping on the acceleration to further their cause and the climate change sceptics now using the slowing down to their own benefit.”

All of this means that “Neither group is right and all that is achieved is greater confusion among the public.” Yet Pope is making a very misleading claim here. she is equating two forces, “climate change advocates” and “climate change sceptics”, which do not have anything like equal weight in scientific circles. That some who want to draw attention to climate change overstress certain aspects is far less damaging than those who deny it full stop.

Neither do “apocalyptic” predictions fuel denialists any more than say, prominent climate scientists lashing out at climate change campaigners and concerned scientists for over-egging their intellectual puddings. In reality, Pope’s bastardised discourse analysis is like catnip to deniers who have begun to crow about the Met Office denying anthropogenic warming.

Pope may deny that she intended to feed the trolls. But she is guilty of vast strategic naivety in making such an intervention.

Cynics might suggest that Pope simply has no taste for citizen involvement in forming climate change policy. Her message certainly carries the implication that popular enthusiasm is destructive when dealing with rareified scientific matters. Yet, if Field is correct, it is the enthusiasts who are nearer to the truth than Pope herself.

Cynics might also suggest that, instead of speaking as a scientist, Pope is speaking as a government adviser. Like Hansen, who has been downplaying the significance of aviation (and has close ties to government in the U.S. and UK), as Andrew Revkin of the New York Times reports, “Dr. Pope is responsible for informing British government offices about climate science” and “It’s unusual for a senior government expert…to make such points.”

It may not be a coincidence that Pope’s lament has emerged just as the UK government faces severe challenges over its climate change “policy” – most seriously with regard to coal power stations and airport expansion. But the government has also been accused of cooking the books on its emissions figures and has seen its plans for a “great British refurb” usurped by Tory plans for sizable grants to homeowners to install insulation and other energy efficiency measures.

Suddenly climate change is not such an emergency. Oh well.

Additionally, some have taken issue with the scientific basis for Pope’s critique. One of her claims is that declining Arctic summer sea ice could be simply due to natural variability, and predictions of its imminent demise have been much exaggerated. Perhaps. But as A. Siegel relates on the Huffington Post, “with the one case that she points to, what is going on with the Arctic ice cap, she seems to be challenging the results from the real ‘ice experts’ at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), which are quite apocalytic themselves.”

Moreover, Siegel also suggests that “Pope provides little direct evidence as to supposed exaggerations and doesn’t point to any specific person that merits being sent to the same circles of Hell reserved for global warming deniers willfully seeking to forestall sensible action to mitigate global warming” while her postponement of the Arctic “apocalypse” to later in the century amounts only to “a case of Apocalypse now versus Apocalypse later” (in the words of Grist’s Joseph Romm).

All of this suggests that expectations are being lowered of the 2009 IPCC summit in Kopenhagen. This can’t be allowed to happen. Pope herself would agree that the challenge is dire. As Grist’s Romm notes, “Pope herself is the principal source of the major recent apocalyptic prediction made by climate scientists — ironically in a December article in the Guardian, “Met Office warn of ‘catastrophic’ rise in temperature.”

So we need to get away from the kind of discourse analysis that Pope is now proposing, which smacks of Stalinist self-criticism more than any kind of honest call for scientific rationality. We need to build movements that incorporate millions of people, as quickly as possible, all demanding rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

As Peter Marshall, national Secretary of Australia’s United Firefighters Union has said, “If the government doesn’t take notice of our letter, the public should make sure they take notice, because ultimately they’re the ones whose lives are being placed at risk.”


2 Responses to “Climate Brief”

  1. […] 18, 2009 As I noted yesterday, the words of Vicky Pope are catnip for professional climate change deniers. Although they were […]

  2. A Siegel Says:

    Thank you. This is an excellent discussion.

    It seems as if there is a real double standard,

    Climate realists, with a differing perspective (sadly, often proved right) on the data leading to stronger views about where we are headed, are open for attack on the slightest disagreement, ‘overstatement’. Thus, this is a basically a scientific debate over how to read the data and, as well, how far one can extapolate beyond proven to surmised.

    Deniers / Skeptics can twist facts into untruths, refuse to acknowledge any questionable elements of their discussion, and they merit only a mild slap on the wrist. (After all, ‘we expect that of them’.)

    This played out in the last month in discussions of George Will OPEDS (for a partial bibliography, see: and, especially, Andrew Revkin’s equating of Al Gore removing one slide from his presentation with Will’s serial deception. (

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