A Storm in a Teacup in the Sunday Telegraph

As the sparseness of this blog indicates, I’ve been watching the climate policy debate from a distance, lately. (There is no debate about the science.) But I was dragged into it over the weekend by a shoddy bit of reporting in the Sunday Telegraph (UK) — which reminds me yet again why it’s probably best to maintain my silence.

Late last week I received an e-mail from a young man named Richard Gray, who was seeking information about an article I wrote for Climbing magazine a long time ago, in 2001. Innocently, I responded. At his request, I sent him a copy of the text and a minor correction that appeared in the subsequent issue of the magazine (see the previous post on this blog) and agreed to an interview by phone.

Mr. Gray is a “science correspondent” for his newspaper. Unfortunately, the article he proceeded to write, “UN climate change panel based claims on student dissertation and magazine article,” indicates that he failed to understand a simple table in a report by this UN panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. One would prefer to believe that he doesn’t understand the science, but it appears to be something more basic than that: he seems to have difficulty with simple reading comprehension — unless, of course, his true purpose was to misrepresent the report. Furthermore, he manufactured a quote for his article that supposedly came from my mouth. I’m afraid that it did not.

And now his article is creating a stir in both the blogosphere and the more traditional news media. Stories are cropping up in India and New Zealand. Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC, is being asked questions about it. Even I am getting requests for my point of view (“POV” in journalist jargon). One news outlet is proposing to drive for five hours to interview me in front of a camera.

… But wait a minute. There is no actual story here. Mr. Gray made it up. These Johnny-come-latelys are writing a story about his story, and they haven’t bothered to check on its veracity. Now, any comment about his story is simply a POV, and all POVs are equal. (“[A]n effort should be made to broadcast the different points-of-view in any debate/development,” one journalist assures me.) The next round will bring stories about their stories about his story and produce yet more POVs even farther removed from the facts. Does it matter if a POV is based on false reasoning or conscious ideological blindness? Apparently not. And what if the trigger for the entire fantasy was based on the same?

Thus do global warming deniers dupe the media, and this is why they will always have an upper hand in the fictional “global warming debate.” It’s not a debate; it’s a public relations war.

The point of Mr. Gray’s article was to cast doubt upon the integrity and professionalism of the IPCC by pointing out that they relied on two non-peer reviewed articles to come to a scientific conclusion. As it turns out, however, the IPCC is directed by mandate to use non-peer reviewed sources. According to its official procedures for preparing reports:

The authors will work on the basis of peer reviewed and internationally available literature, including manuscripts that can be made available for IPCC review and selected non-peer reviewed literature. Source, quality and validity of non-peer reviewed literature, such as private sector information need to be critically assessed by the authors and copies will have to be made available to reviewers who request them.

There goes the entire premise of Gray’s story.

“In its most recent report,” he wrote, “[the IPCC] stated that observed reductions in mountain ice in the Andes, Alps and Africa was being caused by global warming, citing two papers as the source of the information. However, it can be revealed that one of the sources quoted was a feature article published in a popular magazine for climbers which was based on anecdotal evidence from mountaineers about the changes they were witnessing on the mountainsides around them.”

Let’s look more closely at the substance of Mr. Gray’s “revelation.”

It is based entirely on one line in a short table buried in a 938-page IPCC report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” that is, how observed climate changes are affecting the human and natural world, how vulnerable we and other species might be to these changes, and how we might adapt to them. (The table is the first one in this section of the report.) Note Gray’s use of the word “caused” in the quote above. But the Impacts report is not about the causes of climate change. Causes are addressed in another of the four voluminous reports that made up the IPCC’s full 2007 assessment: “The Physical Science Basis.” Gray doesn’t mention that report in his article, and it would seem that he did not read it. It contains an entire chapter about “Changes in Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground,” which can be found here, and a subsection on “Changes in Glaciers and Ice Caps,” which can be found here. The chapter demonstrates unequivocally that snow and ice are wasting away the planet over. I count 257 references, all of which appear to be from the traditional scientific literature, although perhaps this assertion will prompt another “journalist” of Mr. Gray’s ilk to go through them with a fine-toothed comb and experience another scintillating revelation.

On top of this, Gray has managed to misinterpret the table that provides the entire slim foundation for his piece. It isn’t about the causes of retreating mountain ice at all. It’s purpose is to illustrate the impacts of retreating ice — as documented in the Science Basis report — on the human and natural world. The message of the one line he has created such a fuss over is that the retreat of snow and ice in the mountains is causing ice climbs in the Andes, the Alps, and Africa to disappear (not a particularly surprising, nor earth-shattering impact). In other words, Gray has it backwards: he thinks the IPCC is using the loss of ice climbs as evidence for retreating mountain ice, when they’re simply stating that retreating mountain ice, as documented elsewhere, is causing ice climbs to disappear. This is rather a basic misunderstanding for anyone, much less a “science correspondent.”

He quotes me as saying, “I am surprised that they have cited an article from a climbing magazine, but there is no reason why anecdotal evidence from climbers should be disregarded as they are spending a great deal of time in places that other people rarely go and so notice the changes.” I never said that sentence. Anyone who knows me could tell, because I don’t speak that way. I said a few phrases vaguely similar to these that he seems to have cobbled together to meet his purposes; but even so, he is not conveying my meaning accurately. I was surprised to learn that the report had cited my article, because I hadn’t heard that before, but I was not surprised that they would cite it. I think it is quite appropriate that they would cite it, and I am proud that they did. The facts in my article are solid, and I stand by my reporting, especially about the disappearance of ice and snow climbs around the world. It is an absolute fact that they are changing drastically in the high mountains pretty much everywhere and that many — including some of the most beautiful — have disappeared altogether. This is common knowledge among climbers. It is old news. (Read my article and remember that it was written almost a decade ago.) In 2007 the American Alpine Club held a symposium on the subject at its annual meeting in Bend, Oregon.

Gray quotes a certain Professor Richard Tol from Dublin as saying “There is no way current climbers and mountain guides can give anecdotal evidence back to the 1900s, so what they claim is complete nonsense.” What is this man talking about? Who better to tell us about the mountains than people who spend their lives in them? And of course climbers can give evidence going back to the 1900s. Evidently, neither Tol nor Gray read my article. Gerry Roach, who appears in it, had climbed El Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain in Mexico, once in each of the previous five decades and had observed dramatic loss of ice. I heard similar stories from far too many climbers to include in the article, regarding nearly every major mountain range on Earth. And this was not the only evidence I used. I presented the results of a number of scientific studies that were later cited in the 2007 Science Basis report. So Gray has mischaracterized my article in that respect as well: it was not simply a collection of anecdotes.

I note that he does not mention, although I did tell him, that I have a doctorate in physics. Why not? Because it might make me seem more credible and undermine his purpose? One might view my article as a popular version of the sort of review, citing a broad range of detailed scientific studies, that often appears in the science journals, with anecdotes thrown in for color and support.

And let me point out that there is nothing wrong with anecdotal evidence per se. Scientists often use it, although it is important that they use it correctly. The changes in the mountains in the past few decades have been so dramatic that even a twenty-nine year old, like Topher Donahue, who appears at the beginning of my article, had seen tremendous change. I certainly heard enough evidence to conclude that mountain ice was disappearing and climbs were changing, but I didn’t use the evidence to make a statistical analysis of how fast the snow-line was climbing the hillsides, for example.

Climbers are superb observers of the mountain environment (maybe because their lives often depend upon their powers of observation), and their written accounts of their climbs, their photographs, and so on provide unassailable evidence that the high, ever less white wilderness has changed significantly in recent decades. (You’ll find an excellent example here.) In my first book, Thin Ice, I documented the changes on Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro over the past century by comparing the detailed account of Hans Meyer, the German who made the first ascent in 1889, with my own observations when I climbed the mountain in 1999 and 2000. The ice had retreated thousands of vertical feet, and this has changed the climbing experience significantly, believe me. Meyer, like many early mountaineer/explorers, saw his mission as being partly scientific. He mapped the extent of the glaciers on Kilimanjaro. Scientists have used his as the starting point for successive maps made by others to show that the mountain has lost more than three-quarters of its fabled snow since his first ascent. (In the last few pages of Thin Ice, I revisit the subject of my magazine article, adding new information that came to light between 2001 and 2004. The book includes extensive references.)

Are Gray and Tol arguing that the mountains of the world are not losing snow and ice? I challenge them to provide credible evidence for that.

While he was interviewing me, Gray himself referred to this matter a few times as a “storm in a teacup” (I had remembered the Americanized phrase, “tempest in a teapot,” but he has graciously corrected me on that.) I heartily agree that this is a storm in a teacup; but it seems that the hot air of the media, similarly to the way warm surface water in the Gulf of Mexico adds strength to tropical storms and sometimes turns them into hurricanes, has energized the Telegraph’s tiny tempest. Mr. Gray’s non-story is taking on a life of its own.

People who play such games are not interested in facts or reasoned discussion, but for those few who might be interested, I thought I’d offer this “POV.”

As for silence, should I add more hot air to this tempest by talking to the media? I’m not sure.

3 thoughts on “A Storm in a Teacup in the Sunday Telegraph

  1. A friend mentioned the Telegraph artice to me Saturday night as proof that we should be skeptical of claims by scientists, *particularly* in this area. I was skeptical, especially since the last article I read in that esteemed paper had reported that Ahmadinejad is Jewish, but then he told me *this* story had been picked up by the Guardian. I had difficulty googling around for a response, but I’m happy I found your excellent rebuttle. I hope it will receive wider publicity.

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