The Economist on Climate Change (sigh)

The last few issues of the Economist have seen a few climate change type articles. One of leaping penguins even made the front cover (headline "Don't Despair: grounds for hope on global warming"; however the grounds for optimism they find are thin: some grassroots action, and hints of voters changing their minds). The Economist (of course) isn't a very good source for the science of GW; its written by economist-types (oddly enough) not scientists. And they have their biases: mostly a free-market liberalism which makes them rather dislike the idea of anything that won't fit within that framework and which might badly strain it. I quite like their general tone usually: I have pinned up in my office two of their front covers arguing for greater immigration, just next to a nearly interchangeable one from Socialst Worker, which I found ironic; one of the first I saw was in favour of same-sex marriage: the Economist, whilst very free-market, is by no means std.right-wing.

As a side note, the most recent edition notes that Lee Raymond is going, which could well be good news.

The Economist has a good reputation in general, and is widely read by business-politician type folks, so we have to care what they say and how they say it. In particular, first paragraphs matter, because many people won't read past them. Which is why the 7th of Dec (or, in the paper version, 10-17th Dec; thanks CH) article is so bad:

THE climate changes. It always has done and it always will. In the past 2m years the temperature has gone up and down like a yo-yo as ice ages have alternated with warmer interglacial periods. Reflecting this on a smaller scale, the 10,000 years or so since the glaciers last went into full-scale retreat have seen periods of relative cooling and warmth lasting from decades to centuries. Against such a noisy background, it is hard to detect the signal from any changes caused by humanity's increased economic activity, and consequent release of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

This is std.septic.sh*t*. Not because its false, but because its misleading. Try this:

People die. They always have and they always will... therefore we shouldn't worry about whether to fund the health service or worry about cars on the roads or terrorists, its just more or less death.

A more honest intro would reflect the std.consensus: that the recent climate change is likely to be unusual and likely to have been caused by people.

The rest of the article isn't too bad: somewhat skeptic (note we've got the k back now) but not too bad. E.g.:

The third finding is the resolution of an inconsistency that called into question whether the atmosphere was really warming. This was a disagreement between the temperature trend on the ground, which appeared to be rising, and that further up in the atmosphere, which did not. Now, both are known to be rising in parallel.

Parallel is wrong, to be picky: the tropospheric trend should be larger, and is.

In case you're wondering, #1 was that its been warm recently, and #2 was the Arctic. #4 is detection of warming in the oceans; #5 is a bit dodgy in their words: The fifth is the observation in reality of a predicted link between increased sea-surface temperatures and the frequency of the most intense categories of hurricane, typhoon and tropical storm. If I were you, I'd read RC. #6 is the THC (again you want RC).

After a slightly dodgy solar bit, they continue with That the climate is warming now seems certain. And though the magnitude of any future warming remains unclear, human activity seems the most likely cause. The question is what, if anything, can or should be done. And thats a fair question. Too rapid or too great a warming, though, risks serious, unpleasant and in some cases irreversible changes, such as the melting of large parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps. There is, to put it politely, a lively debate about how far the temperature can rise before things get really nasty and how much carbon dioxide would be needed to drive the process. Unfortunately, existing models of the climate are not accurate enough to resolve this dispute with the precision that policymakers would like. Again, pretty good, apart from that last bit (to me it implies that the poor old policymakers are just sitting there wondering when the GCMs will tell them what to do, which is nonsense: they all have agendas of their own).

Then lastly If greenhouse-gas emissions are to be capped, however, a mixture of political will and technological fixes will be needed. Seems fair to me, but we're heading out of my territory with that, so I'll just observe that political will seems distinctly missing, to me. I'm aiming for a post on Montreal soon.


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

What would your list of 5 be?

William M. Connolley said...

The "news" for 2005 was probably the Science papers which apparently resolved the tropospheric warming; and the ocean warming (Barnett?). Those would be 2 and 3. 1 would be the std surface record stuff. General retreat in the cryosphere (Arctic, sea ice, glaciers) might be 4. Not sure there is a number 5. It wouldn't be hurricanes or THC!

EliRabett said...

The standard slippery Economist tactic is the well know, if this then that. True enough but their this is oft a pile of codswallop. Watch out for it, they are masters.