A convenient mistruth?

The availability cascade

dangerous dogdangerous dog

There is a report of a small child mauled by a dog. It is headline news. Hereafter toddlers are frequently mauled by dogs for a while until the press becomes bored. There are then no reported incidents of toddler mauling for a couple of years. Who believes that there have been no attacks for the intervening years? However, when the headlines concern global warming, which has conveniently morphed into climate change, the journalists who write the Armageddon-like headlines do not like to write anything which interferes with the main thrust of their message, even if this is official information.

The 'availability cascade' is a self-perpetuating process: the more attention a danger gets, the more worried people become, leading to more news coverage and more fear (this is a term coined by Timur Kuran, professor of economics and political science at Duke University, and Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago.) See NYT article.

They say:
Slow warming doesn’t make for memorable images on television or in people’s minds, so activists, journalists and scientists have looked to hurricanes, wild fires and starving polar bears instead. They have used these images to start an availability cascade. Once a cascade is under way, it becomes tough to sort out risks because experts become reluctant to dispute the popular wisdom, and are ignored if they do. Now that the melting Arctic has become the symbol of global warming, there’s not much interest in hearing other explanations of why the ice is melting — or why the globe’s other pole isn’t melting, too.

For the last three years, satellite-measured average global temperature has been declining if you take 1998 as your point of reference.(Admittedly this was a very hot year). If you take 2002 as your point of reference, then temperatures have plateaued. This is certainly not what you’d expect if carbon dioxide is driving temperature because carbon dioxide levels have been increasing but temperatures have actually been coming down over the last 10 years.

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored. A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage of that continent has focused on the one small part that has warmed. Pictures of penguins are then shown to illustrate the 'threat'.The high-profile collapse of some Antarctica's ice shelves is likely the result of natural current fluctuations, not global warming, says a leading British expert on polar climates. Analysis of data from the European Space Agency's ERS-1 satellite, according to Duncan Wingham, Professor of Climate Physics at University College London.

The Northern Antarctic Peninsula is a shark's fin of land jutting out from the body of the continent, and reaching to just 750 miles from Chile - where there has been a drastic increase in temperature, thinning of ice sheets and collapse of ice shelves. We are told that areas the size of Kansas or Wales have broken off and this, to the layman , sounds pretty horrific. However, this melt is well within natural variability and a very small portion of the total annual melt. Every single summer approximately 10 million square kilometers of ice melts in about 3 months, this is an area equal to the United States. In comparison: the Larsen A ice shelf, 1600 square kilometres in size, fell off in 1995, the Wilkins ice shelf, 1100 square kilometres, fell off in 1998 and the Larsen B, 13,500 square kilometres, dropped off in 2002. Photos of penguins and a worried soundtrack complete the picture. Other scientists vigorously disagree but, we should not just be given the cascade information.

By contrast, the melting and thinning in the Arctic looks dangerous and very real. We are told that polar bears will soon become extinct and are shown the iconic image of a polar bear hanging onto ice. The photographer who took this image tells us that the bear was, in fact, happy and that polar bears like to swim. See here.

Antarctic peninsulaAntarctic peninsula

In the Davis Strait area, a 140,000-square kilometre region, the polar bear population has grown from 850 in the mid-1980s to 2,100 today. Yet other studies show that populations in some areas are declining. The evidence is unclear but that image is used to prove that there can be no doubt. The use of the discredited photo, in numerous publications as well as Bob Dole's 'Inconvenient Truth' video simply causes doubt amongst the more cynical of us. Perhaps if this is definitely 'known' to be true, then they should be banning hunting of polar bears, spending money helping endangered Inuit populations and providing marine protection areas to protect them from the resultant oil and gas rush.

Hurricane Katrina is yet another example of the cascade theory and again was used in Dole's video which has now been sent to every school in the UK for free. The lack of attention to the levees is unimportant because global warming caused the hurricane. Nobel laureate Bob Dole say so, hence it must be true. Whatever one's views on climate change/global warming this is an egregious use of such information as it is in effect propaganda. This is the 'ends justify the means' theory. We know there is global warming so the veracity of the information we give our children doesn't matter as long as the main thrust of the message gets through. However, you can't trust people if they deliberately misuse information.

The Arctic melting has been caused by: decrease in cloud cover, dirty snow, increase in warm winds or emissions, who knows? It is true that this record cold winter has paralyzed many parts of the world despite the ever-growing amount of greenhouse gases billowing out from India and China and there has been limited reporting of these record cold weather spells.

It is a brave scientist, politician or journalist who even queries any aspect of climate change. Personally I'm neutral. I simply do not know. I do know that politicians lie : Lisbon Treaty or Constitution, 15 minutes to counter weapons of mass destruction prior to the Iraq war and so it goes. The same goes for pundits, scientists and journalists, anyone who queries any aspect of climate change/global warming is: right wing, illiberal, cranky and probably racist. Anyone who accepts the lot without demur is : left wing, kindly, caring and liberal.
happy bearshappy bears

Even though there is some uneasiness among the alarmists, they could never just put down arms and acknowledge defeat. Too much money has already been invested. Too many jobs and reputations are on the line. So they add some wrinkles to the story and hope nobody will react. There are now thousands of scientists, businesses, journalists and politicians whose credibility and career are linked to climate change/global warming. They just cannot lose face over this, even if they are wrong.

Wouldn't it be nice if, instead of just talking they did something? If Armageddon is to come we might as well spend our money making the lives of people living in the world now as pleasant as possible. What about irrigation, drainage, sewage schemes and reservoirs? What about replanting mangrove or similar? What about buying the trees whilst they are alive and thus preserving the rain forest? What about really treating AIDS? What about a credible and environmentally friendly farming regime in the West? What about free and fair trade with the third world? What about only constructing oil pipelines and digging mines in the developing world to the same standards that would pertain in the West? There are enough media outlets to make all these things high profile and possible.

Nonetheless, they are not as easy to explain as seemingly desperate polar bears who are poor swimmers clinging to what remains of the ice.