Christopher Booker uses Times Atlas story for his own purposes

  • 22 Sep 2011, 14:00
  • Tim Holmes

Christopher Booker's full-page article in the Mail yesterday predictably attempted to connect the Times Atlas' recent mistake on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet with previous mistakes made by the IPCC - all in the service of a narrative that "belief in global warming may be little more than a vastly over-blown scare".

Booker is a vociferous climate change skeptic of long standing, and not averse to accusations about mainstream scientists' "alarmism". In February, for instance, he wrote that

"Prof Peter Stott of the UK Met Office's Hadley Centre and Dr Myles Allen, head of Oxford's Climate Dynamics Group ... have long been among the most influential scientists in the world in stoking up climate alarmism."

So the fact that it was mainstream climate scientists (part of the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change) who knocked this particular claim on the head of course posed something of a problem for Booker's conventional mode of argument.

As the Telegraph's Geoffrey Lean and other commentators have already pointed out, the claim made by the Times Atlas that Greenland had lost 15% of its mass was "swiftly denounced" by the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) at Cambridge University and the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado. Scientists from the SPRI at the University of Cambridge wrote a letter to the Times and issued a press release which labelled the claim "incorrect and misleading". Julienne Stroeve of the NSIDC weighed in with a forthright comment on the climate skeptic blog Watts up With That:

"..we're trying to get figure out exactly what they did - what data source they used, what processing they did, etc. Obviously we are not too happy about it (and nor or any the glaciologists who study Greenland)."

Booker himself quoted experts from the Scott Polar Research Institute and (oddly enough) his erstwhile foes at the Met Office. His explanation for this is that some climate scientists have become more wary of exaggerated claims in recent years:

"... the fact that responsible scientists who are by no means climate sceptics should have been so anxious to point out the errors in the Times Atlas is perhaps an indication that some of the lessons of those blunders by the IPCC have struck home.

"The more responsible members of the 'warmist' scientific community seem now rather more on their guard than they were against the peddling of baseless scare stories to promote the case for global warming."

Later on he stated that the Times Atlas has been "damningly challenged by real scientific experts".

So what else are these "responsible members" of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists - the "real scientific experts" - saying? Environmental journalist Mark Lynas cites a number of experts, among them Dr. Jeffrey S. Kargel, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Arizona, who is scathing in his criticism of the Times Atlas's error:

"make no mistake: this is not what is happening, this is not science, and this is not what scientists are saying ... these new maps are ridiculously off base, way exaggerated relative to the reality ...  I don't know how exactly the Times Atlas produced their results, but they are NOT scientific results. ... a number like 15% ice loss used for advertising the book is simply a killer mistake that cannot be winked away."

Here, however, is what else he has to say about, in his words, "the reality of rapid change in Greenland":

"Greenland specialists have documented what is actually happening in Greenland, and it involvessome incredibly rapid changes, mainly increasing melting, thinning, and retreat; and slight thickening in some sectors, butoverall Greenland is a story of massive, rapid retreat."

Here is the graphic that accompanied Christopher Booker's piece in the Mail. Its caption stated:

"the Times atlas showed a dramatic contraction of the Greenland ice shelf between 1999 and 2011. In fact the real change was negligible."

The rate of loss may seem very small if it is judged by looking at a map. But the caption gives a highly misleading impression that the current rate of loss of the Greenland ice sheet is "negligible". As noted in an earlier piece on Carbon Brief, the Greenland ice sheet has lost approximately 0.1% of its volume over the last 12 years. This is a long way from 15%, but the recently accelerated rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheet is a matter of widespread and intense concern. Scientists have warned that, "[i]f this trend continues, ice sheets will be the dominant contributor to sea level rise in the 21st century."

Booker apparently believes that we should listen to the experts. As he tells us later on:

"When so much now hangs on whether or not there is genuinely reliable evidence for man-made climate change, it is more vital than ever that the claims made to support that change are grounded in proper science."

If Booker is right, shouldn't we be heeding these scientists' warnings? Or do they only count as "real scientific experts" when they agree with his own preferred version of events? If articles like " Rise of sea levels is 'the greatest lie ever told'" - penned by Booker in March 2009 - are anything to go by, apparently so.

In fact, prominent mainstream climate scientists have long subjected "alarmist" statements on climate science to the same standards of rigorous public scrutiny and criticism as climate "skepticism". Indeed it was a mainstream climate scientist, Georg Kaser, who - as Booker himself acknowledged - first pointed out the IPCC's mistaken claim on Himalayan glacier melt. It was this that initiated the spate of revelations Booker claims has now made the "responsible" scientists more "anxious" and "on their guard". This episode is thus not a change, but entirely in keeping with what has long been climate scientists' standard practice.

The comparison with Christopher Booker's work - which has been found repeatedly to be riddled with fundamental errors on climate science and climate change - is not flattering (see for example here, here and here.)

Booker suggested that there was a deliberate intent to mislead on the part of the Times Atlas, and of those who have "approved" it:

"one of the world's most respected reference books, it seems, has been caught outperpetrating what amounts to yet more propagandafor the belief in global warming. ...

"now the new Times Atlas can be added to the approved propaganda list, to ensure that once again school students are being fed with the right-on, politically correct message ..."

No evidence has however emerged that this error was "perpetrated" specifically "to ensure" the indoctrination of students. And Harper Collins has today announced that it will be "urgently reviewing" the maps in response to further criticism from the scientific community. 

Booker also claimed that the educational syllabus has been massively distorted by climate change agenda:

"In geography, the present curriculum no longer concentrates on countries, continents, rivers, mountains or cities. Instead, it insists that pupils should learn about global warming and climate change and the likely effects of rising sea levels."

Notwithstanding Booker's peculiarly narrow conception of the rich and complex field of geography, this claim is obviously untrue. AQA, for instance, currently lists on its Geography syllabus "rivers", "world cities", "cartographic ... skills", "plate techtonics", "young fold mountains"; and so on.

Booker also wrote that:

"A High Court judge decided that the 'apocalyptic vision' of global warming presented in the film was politically partisan and not an impartial analysis of the science of climate change."

Yet this is highly misleading. In fact, in his ruling Mr Justice Burton said:

"I have no doubt that Dr Stott, the Defendant's expert, is right when he says that:

"Al Gore's presentation of the causes and likely effects of climate change in the film was broadly accurate.""

Booker referred to "grievous errors" by the IPCC. Yet a thorough inquiry by the Dutch Government "found no errors that would undermine the main conclusions in the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change" in its Working Group II Report - the source of the errors Booker mentions. Not exactly "grievous". Yet Booker still persists in asserting that:

"too much evidence has come to light in recent years to suggest that much of their belief in global warming may be little more than a vastly over-blown scare."

Scientists who wrote to the Times expressing their concern about HarperCollins' mistake wrote that

"It is... crucial to report climate change and its impact accurately and to back bold statements with concrete and correct evidence"

Christopher Booker says that he agreed with this statement. But his writings appear to indicate the contrary.

UPDATE: 22nd Sept, 5.30pm - Some minor edits were made to this article, following a request from the author
UPDATE: 23rd Sept, 4.20pm - Text which initially said "the Greenland ice sheet melt is currently proceeding at about 0.1% a year" was changed to read "the Greenland ice sheet has lost approximately 0.1% of its volume over the last 12 years" when this error was pointed out to us. 

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