How to be a denier #2: the truth is what we want it to be

by Gareth on November 18, 2010

What do you do when you don’t the like the facts of the matter? You ignore them, right? Or you attempt to downplay them, or perhaps pretend that the data are somehow tainted or not to be trusted. But if you’re a really devoted denier, you can do all these things at the same time. Something like this seems to be going on at smear merchant Richard Treadgold’s Climate Conversation blog, where he’s been working himself into a fine lather about Bryan’s recent posts on sea level rise in Kiribati.

Treadgold’s first riposte made use of the very accurate data from the Seaframe measuring site on Kiribati, relying on the most recent (September) report from the South Pacific Sea Level & Climate Monitoring Project. He said:

The latest report shows that whatever is causing the problems with sea water incursion into or onto the island, it’s certainly not rising sea levels. For at least the last nine years there has been no acceleration in sea level rise at the monitoring station on Kiribati. 

And:

The September report says that the average sea-level trend at the station on Kiribati for the last 17 years has been a rise of 3.2 mm per year. That’s 32 mm per decade, and 320 mm per century. A little higher than normal, but hardly catastrophic. Considering coral atolls have kept pace with 140 metres of sea level rise since the last ice age, it’s hardly catastrophic.

The figures come from the September 2010 monthly data summary (pdf) from the sea level project, and are quoted accurately. (For a broader overview, with lots of good background information, the 2009 full year report (pdf) is recommended). I would note that there is a big difference between corals “keeping up with sea level rise” on an uninhabited island sticking 145 metres up out of the ocean, and the current situation. In his latest response to Bryan, however, the previously acknowledged rise magically disappears:

There has been no increase in sea level in Kiribati. However you slide by this fact, Bryan, as long as you fail to refute it you fail to persuade anyone that Kiribati has already experienced any “adverse impacts of climate change”.

How malleable those facts become in the hands of Treadgold! First he acknowledges that the sea is rising — but not by much (though a little higher than “normal”, he’ll admit) — then it’s not rising at all. Meanwhile, out on the islands he admits to having never visited the inhabitants are noting the impacts of that small (5.8cm) rise — particularly in its impacts on extreme high water levels.

Which Treadgold are you going to believe? Neither, for preference. I’ll place my money on the people on the spot, and the Seaframe numbers. And you don’t need to be a genius to work out that with the rate of ice loss from the big ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica increasing, 30-40 years of unavoidable further warming in the pipeline, and the long term sea level rise that will come from thermal expansion of the deep ocean, the future for human habitation of low-lying islands around the world looks pretty grim. The only credible argument left is about how soon the people of Kiribati will lose their home.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

R2D2 November 18, 2010 at 5:06 pm

“There has been no increase in sea level in Kiribati”

I haven’t read your discussion but this post response seems like a little bit of an over reaction. Treadgold admits sea levels are rising at a normal rate and then says “There has been no increase in sea level in Kiribati”. Clearly what he meant was “There has been no increase in the rate of sea level in Kiribati since modern global warming begun around 1978“?

Gareth November 18, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Then that’s what he should have written. The fact remains that sea level in Kiribati is rising, impacts are being observed, and we expect that matters will not improve.

Now, how about you nip over to the How to be a denier #1 post, and set about defending Evans?

Gold November 18, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Just curious, how much thermal expansion is there likely to be in the deep ocean? My understanding of this is that the vast majority of heat is lost well before the water reaches the deep ocean. I can understand thermal expansion in the ocean but I’m wondering how much of an impact there would be from the heating of the deep ocean.

Gareth November 18, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Hi Gold,

This article about a recent paper should help. Basically, the upper ocean (above 1000m or so) can warm up and reach equilibrium with increased GHG forcing in a few decades, but the deep ocean is much bigger, and the mixing time for warm water to reach down there is a lot longer. That’s why when you look at SLR projections beyond this century, you see a very long slow rise continuing for centuries.

Richard C1 November 21, 2010 at 8:40 am

At the risk of sounding like my secondary school science teachers, (and they used to drive me potty insisting on this). You have to be more precise. What do you mean by lost?

adelady November 21, 2010 at 10:55 am

I’m having trouble with “lost” too. Surely it can only be transferred by conduction or convection – either to the atmosphere or to the ocean.

I think this might be one of those numbers-far-too-big-for-the-human-mind issues. The heat in question cannot be “lost” except in the sense that it is spread through millions of cubic km of water. The fact that the tiny, tiny temperature increase of any given litre is undetectable (as near as dammit is to swearing) doesn’t alter the fact that there are billions and uncountable billions similarly heated litres of water – and the sum total of that heat is increasing.

Mr February November 18, 2010 at 10:39 pm

As one of my cranky older relatives used to say “Consistency is the least-adhered-to virtue”. Particularly, it seems, amongst those who disagree with human-caused climate change.

crakar24 November 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Mr February,

I think you hit the nail on the head with the term consistency. Has the sea level at Kiribati been increasing at a CONSISTENT rate for the past few hundred years or has this rate been increasing or perhaps decreasing over this period?

Australis November 19, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Richard says there has been no rise in Kiribati sea levels; Gareth says the rise has been 3.2cm/decade; Bryan says the inhabitants have already felt the effects of ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica.

I’d give Gareth the gold and Bryan the wooden spoon. Who can argue with Seaframe?

If the average high tide level has risen only 3.2cm this century, why the panic? Very few coast dwellers could even detect such a miniscule variation.

Mike C November 19, 2010 at 9:59 pm

The worldwide average rate of sea level rise during the 20th century was, the rate over the ~20 years is now 3.2 mm/yr so it would seem likely that the prospects for low lying islands are getting worse.

When you live on an island which has its highest point only a meter or two above sea level, then even the current rate of 32cm a century is certainly something to be worried about. These islands will be uninhabitable long before they disappear completely under the waves, the intrusion of salt water into the thin film of fresh water under many atolls/islands is something the people are Kiribati are very worried about.

[Fixed your links. GR]

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