Thursday, October 22, 2015

On inane criticism in the climate change debate - the Ridley affair

I have been following the climate change debate for over a decade now and have been writing on the topic for several years. Even with that level of exposure, the inane level of personal criticisms thrown around in this debate never ceases to amaze me. Selected individuals, on both sides, appear to believe that the only way to maintain their stature in the field is to belittle and disparage those with whom they disagree. To demonstrate the inane levels some go one need not look further than a tweet from my favourite geophysicist and climatologist Michael E Mann. Dr. Mann tweeted:
Ouch! "Climate Science Denialist @MattWRidley Criticised By Same Scientist He Sourced On Greening Planet Claims"
Dr. Mann was referencing a dispute about an article written by Dr. Matt Ridley. The article (The Benefits of Carbon Dioxide presented as a link to his web site as the original article is stuck behind a paywall) presents a number of well-understood positive effects associated with the rise in global carbon dioxide concentrations. Any reasonable policy discussion of climate change has to include considerations of both the positive and negative effects of increases in global carbon dioxide concentrations. As I have discussed previously in my post “What is so Special about 2 degrees C in the Climate Change Debate?”there are strong arguments to suggest that, at least initially, increased global carbon dioxide concentrations have had/will have a positive net effect on the global economy and human and ecologically health. The literature is equally clear that at some, still undetermined, higher global carbon dioxide concentrations the positive effects will be outweighed by the negative effects with the balance spiraling further into the negative territory thereafter. None of this is particularly contentious.
As for the concept of the CO2 fertilization effect (the topic of Dr. Ridley’s article) it is a well-understood by-product of the global increase in carbon dioxide concentrations. The CO2 fertilization effect was first discussed by the IPCC in their first round of reports and has been incorporated in every round of IPCC reports thereafter. To put it another way: a Google Scholar™ search of CO2 fertilization effect comes back with over 100,000 hits. Let’s be clear here, we are not talking about regular Google™, we are talking about over 100,000 hits on Google Scholar™. So we are not talking about a point of significant contention in the climate change debate. People can argue about the intensity and scale of the CO2 fertilization effect but the effect itself is not one up for much serious debate.
So you might ask: what egregious error was significant enough for DeSmog blog to prepare a full article that was subsequently trumpeted by Dr. Mann? Well, Dr. Ridley’s article is chock full of information. It presents over a dozen points from a Global Warming Policy Foundation report titled “Carbon Dioxide – The Good News”. It includes references to literally hundreds of articles that support the point under consideration and runs at around 2400 words (including postscript). However, buried deep within the pile of information, references and data is a single interesting piece of trivia:
The satellite data show that there has been roughly a 14 per cent increase in the amount of green vegetation on the planet since 1982.
The interesting piece of trivia was pulled from a presentation by Dr. Ranga B Myneni of Boston University at the “Probing Vegetation Conference from Past to Future” held 4 - 5 July 2013 in Antwerp, Belgium. This sounds pretty inane so far does it not? However, DeSmog blog hunted down Dr. Myneni to ask him about the use of this data in Dr. Ridley’s article. Dr. Myneni’s response was typical of an academic, he waffled about uncertainty and precision and was reported as saying:
His [Dr. Myneni’s] analysis of satellite data covering the last 30 years did show a 13 to 14 per cent increase in vegetation growth. He said some of this could be attributed to increased levels of carbon dioxide, but changes in the way land was management [sic]was also a factor.
So Dr. Myneni quibbled about the number (it could be 13%, it could be 14%) in the way academics are prone to do while confirming that Dr. Ridley was absolutely correct (in that Dr. Ridley said roughly 14%). However, in the world of DeSmog (and apparently Dr. Mann) Dr. Myneni had “hit back” at the “Climate Science Denialist Matt Ridley”. Anyone who has read Dr. Ridley’s writing knows full well that Dr. Ridley is not a “denialist” but rather he is a “lukewarmer”. Heck, he wrote an article that appeared in the Times on the topic. Dr. Ridley acknowledges that global warming is real, mostly man-made and will continue. He simply differs with scientists like Dr. Mann about the sensitivity of the climate system to carbon dioxide. That is like calling someone who points out that birds have the ability to fly a denier of the law of gravity?
Dr. Ridley is, however, a well-known science communicator and author. His voice is respected and his words read in the public sphere. Therefore in the eyes of the activists he must be disparaged and torn down at every possible opportunity.
As a noted author, Dr. Ridley knows something that every good science communicator knows: non-specialist readers like numbers they can sink their teeth into. He also knows that in the grand scheme of things the average reader really doesn’t know, or care, what the numbers mean, but they like to see numbers so they have something to relate to when discussing a topic. Dr. Ridley could have just discussed the CO2 fertilization effect in general but to improve the story he chose to use the number from Dr. Myneni’s presentation. The number that Dr. Myneni confirmed was correct when interviewed by DeSmog blog.
So let’s re-examine the basis for the debunking of Dr. Ridley: Dr. Myneni, a well-respected climate scientist, presented a number at one of the most important international conferences on the topic of vegetation change. The conference, being sufficiently confident in Dr. Myneni’s professionalism, published the number in their promotions. Dr. Ridley used that number in an article about popular science in a non-scientific venue. Most importantly, the number itself is really a side-note since, for the purposes of the article, it could have been 10% or it could have been 15%; Dr. Ridley was simply using for illustrative purposes and to make for a more readable text. Dr. Myneni, stepping out of his role of a scientist and moving into the role of an advocate complained that the “benefit of greening is not worth price of all the negative changes” all the while confirming that the rough number provided by Dr. Ridley was indeed correct. That is certainly some debunking there.
What is most frustrating is that given the insane nature of the climate change debate this controversy was seen as deserving a full post on DeSmog blog in an attempt to discredit Dr. Ridley, the scientist. Moreover, once DeSmog blog had posted the article promoters of the alarmist climate change narrative felt the need to highlight the post and add their two cents worth. Talk about a tempest in a teapot!
The oddest thing about this whole controversy is that from my twitter feed, it is clear that many of the activists in the climate change debate feel they have won a victory in this little skirmish. They don’t get how unserious articles like this make them look. Until the activists on the alarmist side can get their act together and become somewhat serious in their criticisms, outsiders, like myself, are going to continue to not take them seriously. We all know about the fable of the boy who cried wolf. Well when blogs like DeSmog and other climate alarmists cry “denialist” and “debunked” at every opportunity it will be hard to take them seriously when they actually do manage to debunk someone.


  1. DeSmog blog suffers from a particularly virulent strain of denierrohea - the majority of the strange and paranoid missives on this site are no more than insults and slurs aimed squarely at any and all not accepting without question their doomsday constructs.
    It is indeed sad that such trash is rolled out with mind numbing monotony. It is even more sad when supposedly intelligent people lack the integrity and brain power to treat it with the disdain it deserves.

    1. But what if it is you that is lacking in brain power? It is not always possible to self-introspect the correctness of our own beliefs.

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  8. You call Ridley a scientist in the closing paragraph of this blogpost. Was that a slip of the tongue or a deliberate rhetorical sleight of hand?

  9. Myneni clearly considered the conclusions Ridley drew from his data to be unwarranted. I do not believe that is stepping outside his remit as a scientist at all. It is rather embarrassing to have the author of the data you misinterpret publicly state that this is the case-- and the satisfaction interested people derive from this speaks neither in favour nor against their position or Ridley's position. Your blogpost is essentially a misdirection and an irrelevant ad hominem.

  10. By the way, in case you don't know, ad hominem is Latin for "inane personal criticisms". A bit of hypocrisy there, perhaps?