The promise of renewables

No sooner had I finished reviewing Fools Rule, which recounts the determination of many nations to carry on with the further discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels in blunt defiance of the warnings of science, than I read Fred Pearce’s article in Yale Environment 360 detailing how the world is in fact burning more and more coal. He pointed to the irony of the forthcoming UN negotiations in Durban, South Africa, where the talk of how to kick the coal habit will take place in a country with high CO2 emissions and a thriving export industry in power-station coal. Not that he was singling out South Africa – the trend is shared over many countries. As if in confirmation our Prime Minister on the same day, during the leaders’ debate, affirmed yet again his government’s commitment to expand mining and drilling operations – in an environmentally responsible way, of course. He offered Australia as an example of the prosperity to be obtained thereby.

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Back to the futures forum

A brief note to let you know that all the presentations at the recent Climate Futures Forum organised by the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at VUW have now been made available for web viewing. There’s a good deal of gold in there: presentations by Martin Manning, David Karoly and Bob Gifford will especially repay the diligent viewer. Slides are available for many of the talks. You can also view the “authors discussion” between Fred Pearce, Erik Conway and myself. My other gig, an evening café session with Lloyd Geering, Robert Gifford, and Bronwyn Hayward will be broadcast on Radio NZ National’s science programme Our Changing World tomorrow night (Thursday May 12), and will also be available as a podcast from the RNZ site.

Routefinding the future: reflecting on the climate futures forum

Two busy days in Te Papa last week, and a lot to think about. The Climate Futures Forum organised by the Climate Change Research Institute at VUW was fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. Fascinating because it’s hard not to be interested when a lot of very smart people are feeding you information, and disturbing because they provided a stark reminder of how hard is the task that confronts us all. Below the fold: some reasonably random thoughts on the forum, interviews with some of the key speakers, and a summing up based on Jonathan Boston‘s remarks at the close of the forum.

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Te Papa (got a brand new climate bag)

I’m off to Wellington next week to take part in the NZ Climate Change Research Institute‘s Climate Futures Forum being held in Te Papa on Thursday and Friday. The forum’s organised around four themes:

  • Climate change and society’s challenge
  • Communication between the science community and society
  • Human behaviour and the capacity to change
  • Towards durable decision-making

There’s a great line-up of speakers and participants: scientists David Karoly, Martin Manning and Dave Frame, science writers Fred Pearce and Erik Conway (Naomi Oreskes’ co-author on Merchants of Doubt) and many others. I’m taking part in a “café” session on the Thursday evening (giving a short 8 minute talk) and then on Friday evening joining Pearce and Conway on stage at the Soundings Theatre in the museum at 6-30pm to discuss climate communication (Sean Plunket in the chair, tickets are free). I’ll be trying to grab a few interviews for future Climate Shows, but most of all I’ll be listening and learning (and perhaps tweeting/blogging a bit, if I have time). Promises to be a fascinating few days, even if I don’t go to see the colossal squid.

Just in from the RSNZ newsletter: Professor Martin Manning, Founding Director, NZ Climate Change Research Institute, invites members of the public to attend two events which are part of the climate change forum on 31 March and 1 April.

  • Café session (free) – What can we do as individuals? – panel hosted by Ian Wedde with Gareth Renowden, Sir Lloyd Geering, Professor Bob Gifford and Dr Bronwyn Hayward. 31 March, 6.30 – 8.00pm, Te Papa.
  • Breakfast session (free) – Responding to big risks – panel hosted by Chris Laidlaw with Martin Kreft, Fred Pearce, Colin James and Professor David Karoly. 1 April, 7.00am – 8.30am, Te Papa.

For more information, and to register for the forum and these events, visit – email Liz Thomas, or phone 04 463 5507.

[Update: Thursday evening Café Session and Friday business breakfast events are now free, thanks to sponsorship by the British High Commission. You’ll still need tickets though, so contact Liz for more info.]

[James Brown, of course]

A new journalistic fiction

Of all the comments on Muir Russell’s climategate report the one that resonated most with me was that of Oxford physicist Myles Allen (pictured). “What everyone has lost sight of is the spectacular failure of mainstream journalism to keep the whole affair in perspective.” When the Guardian is part of that failure the word ‘spectacular’ is warranted.

Unfortunately Fred Pearce, presumably with the support of environment editor James Randerson, continues to treat the East Anglia scientists as if they have been guilty of serious offences. Here’s how he opens his ‘analysis’ of the Russell report:

Generally honest but frequently secretive; rigorous in their dealings with fellow scientists but often “unhelpful and defensive”, and sometimes downright “misleading”, when explaining themselves to the wider world.

On the report:

Many will find the report indulgent of reprehensible behaviour, particularly in peer review, where CRU researchers have been accused of misusing their seniority in climate science to block criticism.

Have been accused by whom? Why, by none other than Pearce himself. He presumably remains disgruntled that his suggestions of serious misconduct haven’t been upheld.

And there’s more in this vein.

Pearce appears determined to vindicate his own rush to judgment on the matter, and he seems to have editorial support. The Guardian editorial, although acknowledging that the main thrust of the Russell report is that the science of climate change is solid, goes out of its way to emphasise blameworthy behaviour from the scientists:

There was an attempt to restrict debate, denying access to raw data and peer-reviewed journals to outsiders and the unqualified. In a sense, climate change scientists began to ape the obsessive culture of their sceptical critics… One can understand why the scientists behaved as they did. But this does not make it right…

[The emails] show a closed and arrogant attitude on the part of some of those involved, protective of their data sets and dismissive of outsiders.

My dismay that the Guardian should give what seems to me disproportionate weight to the Russell report’s findings related to freedom of information was exacerbated when I opened our copy of the current Guardian Weekly yesterday to find that an article of Pearce’s written prior to the release of the report was given prominence. In it he consulted Mike Hulme, Judith Curry, Hans von Storch and Roger Peilke Jr amongst others to demonstrate that climategate has changed science “forever”. The thrust of the article is that scientists have heretofore been secretive with their data and have hidden the uncertainties of their science from public view, but they won’t be able to do that any more. Not being a scientist I have no knowledge of what secretiveness with data means, but in all the books and articles and reports I have now read by climate scientists or about climate science I have seen no sign at all of uncertainties being hidden. Quite the opposite. Pearce reports Curry as saying that as a result of climategate the outside world now sees that “the science of climate change is more complex and uncertain than they have been led to believe”. That’s a baseless and foolish comment. “Led to believe” implies that some kind of deliberate deception has been going on. Roger Pielke Jr of course doesn’t hesitate to speak of “the pathological politicisation of the climate science community.” Von Storch draws the conclusion that “People now find it conceivable that scientists cheat and manipulate, and…need societal supervision…” Mike Hulme is more circumspect, claiming only that a new tone has appeared in which researchers “are more upfront, open and explicit about their uncertainties.”

A new journalistic fiction is in the making..

Perhaps it’s inevitable that journalists like Pearce will remain determined to justify the significance they initially saw in the hacked emails (Gareth adds: especially if, like Pearce, they have a book to sell on the subject). If so, one can only hope that they will get it over with quickly. May Gareth’s “final fizzle” prove an apt description. At least Pearce and the Guardian do not deny the reality and seriousness of climate change.  But the whole issue has been a sidetrack from the main thoroughfare along which we might have made some progress in the months of virtual standstill. Myles Allen has got it right when he speaks of an absence of perspective. It has helped draw attention away from the looming threat ahead. It has also provided the forces of denial and delay with ammunition which they have used to maximum effect.