Last Sunday Andrew Neil interviewed Ed Davey on the Sunday politics show on BBC1. I thought it was a very poor interview and criticised it in a recent post. Dana Nuccitelli was also very critical and pointed out a number of errors in his Guardian blog. Andrew Neil has just published a correction to these corrections.
The basic premise of Andrew Neil’s response seems to be that the goal of his Sunday Politics show is to challenge those being interviewed. I have some sympathy with this view. There is, however, a subtlety to this that I think Andrew Neil has been unwilling to acknowledge. He, a political commentator, was interviewing a government minister about climate science. He wasn’t challenging government policies or the future plans of this government, he was challenging the science. This seems a little odd to me. If you want to challenge the science, interview a scientist. If you want to challenge government policies, interview a government minister. I know they’re related but a government minister isn’t really in a position to defend our current scientific understanding, but they should be able to defend the policies that are based on that science.
I thought I would comment on a few of the points made in Andrew Neil’s article. He comments on Dana Nuccitelli’s Guardian article by saying
Many of the criticisms of the Davey interview seem to misunderstand the purpose of a Sunday Politics interview.
This was neatly summed up in a Guardian blog by Dana Nuccitelli, who works for a multi-billion dollar US environmental business (Tetra Tech) and writes prodigiously about global warming and related matters from a very distinct perspective.
This might indicate one of the issues with Andrew’s approach. Dana Nuccitelli has a bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics and a Masters in Physics. What he writes is based on our current scientific understanding of climate change and global warming. He reads – and clearly understands – the scientific literature, has published papers in the area of climate science, and appears to be well-regarded by a number of high-profile climate scientists. If he has a perspective, it’s based on science. This isn’t politics where you expect there to be more than one side to every argument and where you expect different people to have different opinions (perspectives?); this is science. That’s not to say that there can never be disagreements, but simply that the kind of disagreements one would typically see in science would be different to what one might experience in the political arena.
Andrew Neil then goes on to discuss the graph of temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentrations that he used in his interview with Ed Davey.
The graph we presented illustrating the temperature plateau was not constructed by the Sunday Politics but taken from a website, produced by Phil Jones, a leading figure at the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, which works closely with the UK Met Office and whose work, especially on temperature measurements, has done so much to inform government policy here and abroad. The basis of the graph can be found here.
One immediate issue is that if you look at the source of the Andrew Neil’s graph, it makes no mention of a pause. The document to which the above comment links actually says Increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activities are most likely the underlying cause of warming in the 20th century. The warmth or coldness of individual years is strongly influenced by whether there was an El Niño or a La Niña event occurring in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
Furthermore, the temperature line in the graph used by Andrew Neil appears to be decadally smoothed data. As I explain in this earlier post (and as Dana explains in his Guardian blog), this type of smoothing artificially enhances any slowdown in the last decade due to there being no data beyond 2013. Yes, this is Met Office data but you need to understand the limitations of this data if you are to use it to interpret what is happening with regards to global warming.
Andrew Neil then quotes the IPCC and then adds
The IPCC said in 2007: “The rapid warming observed since the 1970s has occurred in a period when the increase in greenhouse gases has dominated over all other factors.”
It said that, prior to then in the 20th century, any man-made heating was offset by other natural variations in the climate; but that human-released greenhouse gasses are the dominant explanation of the rise in temperatures post the 1970s.
I think this is a bit of a misunderstanding on Andrew Neil’s part. As we’ve added more and more CO2 to the atmosphere, the anthropogenic forcings have increased. In the first half of the 20th century, however, solar forcings were also increasing and anthropogenic forcings were lower than they are today. During this period anthropogenic forcings did contribute to the rise in global temperatures, but did not necessarily dominate. Since 1970, solar forcing has been decreasing while anthropogenic forcings have continued to rise and have become the dominant forcing. So fine, start in 1980 but it’s not really a particularly significant date.
Andrew Neil then mentions why they focused only on global surface temperatures and largely ignored the oceans.
Mr Davey said in his interview – and others echoed the point later – that we should not concentrate just on land temperatures, but look at what was happening to ocean temperatures and the polar ice melt for evidence that global warming was continuing unabated.
This is a reasonable point. But in a 15-minute interview we wanted to stick with the metric that most viewers would understand and which has been used most to judge the course of global warming in public debate i.e. surface temperatures, which are central to the science and, for viewers, the principle point of interest.
Okay, so it may well be true that the public debate has focused on global surface temperatures. This, however, has been partly (or largely) driven by the skeptic community. Many scientists have been trying to get the message across that at least 90% of the excess energy entering our climate system is going into the oceans and that only a few percent is associated with heating the land and atmosphere. This, together with the influence of natural variations, means that surface temperatures are a poor indicator of global warming. Andrew Neil claims that he hasn’t been influenced by deniers or skeptics, but focusing on surface temperatures alone would seem to indicate that he has, if only subconsciously.
Andrew Neil then goes on to discuss the Arctic sea ice, saying
For example, trends in Arctic ice decline and ocean warming are not necessarily irrefutable evidence of continued global warming, though many climate scientists believe they are indeed caused by global warming.
Others point out that satellite observations began in 1979 and caught a decline in Arctic ice already in progress. So the origin of the decline could be many decades ago, and might not have been started by man (though global warming could now be exacerbating a previous “natural” melting trend).
He could read an earlier post of mine that points out that there is no evidence that what we see today is simply a continuation of some natural event. He could also read this RealClimate post called Arctic misrepresentations in which the scientist (Ken Drinkwater) who’s work was used to make the claim that drop in Arctic sea ice was natural, actually commented to say that his work had been misrepresented.
Possibly the most remarkable thing about Andrew Neil’s article justifying the approach taken on Sunday Politics is that he mentions
A new paper by the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) suggest that Greenland ice sheet melting is related to solar activity and “a considerable fraction of the current withdrawal could be a natural occurrence”.
I discussed this “paper” a few days ago in a post called Watt about the remarkable correllation – Arctic sea ice?. This was also highlighted in a Watts Up With That (WUWT) post also a few days ago. The problem is, it’s not recent. It was written in 2005. It’s not actually a paper, it’s a report to the Danish Meteorological Institute. It is only based on data up until 1983 (so can’t be addressing current decreases in Arctic sea ice extent). And, it only considers observations taken from Iceland, which clearly cannot observe the entire Arctic region. Completely inappropriate for making any kind of assessment about the extent of Arctic sea ice. What’s maybe more interesting is where Andrew Neil got this from. The only two places that have highlighted this recently are my blog and WUWT. I’m pretty sure Andrew didn’t get it from here. Interestingly, one of the authors, Peter Thejll, has said on Twitter that he may comment on WUWT’s recent use of this report, so I’d be interested to hear what he has to say.
Andrew Neil also talks about the recent 97% consensus paper. He says
It was reasonable to point out that the methodology and conclusions of the survey have been fiercely challenged by Prof Richard Tol, a respected academic quoted extensively in the Stern Report. Other academics have their misgivings.
Rochard Tol has indeed attacked this work quite heavily on social media, but has not managed (despite trying) to publish anything critical of this study. I also saw a Twitter exchange between Andrew Neil and Richard Tol where Richard Tol told Andrew Neil that others (who wished to remain unnamed) where also critical. So, as far as I’m aware, the only known academic to be critical of the 97% consensus study is Richard Tol. Also, what Richard hasn’t mentioned to Andrew Neil is that he doesn’t dispute the result of the study, simply the method. The draft of his own paper (that was rejected by editor of the journal to which it was submitted) made this very clear.
So, this has all got rather long. In my opinion, there are few take home points for Andrew Neil. Firstly, this is science not politics. There aren’t necessarily two (or more) sides to every issue. If you want to discuss science, interview a scientist. If you want to discuss politics or government policies, interview a politician. Secondly, just because you download data from a reputable organisation doesn’t mean that you know how to interpret it. You need to understand how the data was collected, what it means and what are its limitations. Thirdly, just because the public debate has focused on one thing (surface temperatures) doesn’t make this the right thing to focus on. That’s why you talk to scientists. They can tell you what’s important and relevant and what isn’t. Fourthly, when you get something obviously wrong (Arctic sea ice) and the scientist quoted actually publicly states that his work was mis-represented, it might be best to simply put up your hands and admit you got it wrong. Nothing wrong with that. Would be commendable in my opinion. Finally – and maybe most importantly – if you don’t want people to think that you based your report on the views of climate skeptics/deniers don’t make it seem that you got information from WUWT and don’t quote Roy Spencer or Judith Curry.