Climate fact check: Polar sea ice is in decline. So why are people claiming that it's increasing?

  • 21 Dec 2011, 15:30
  • Verity Payne

Christopher Booker, journalist and notoriously inaccurate climate pundit, has provided us with a nice new method of cherrypicking data - ignore half of the planet!

First, let's note a few things. The Earth has two polar regions - the Arctic, and the Antarctic. In each, there is sea ice, which floats on water, and an ice sheet, which sits on land.

The total amount of sea ice in the world appears to be  in decline. In the Arctic there has been a very rapid decline in sea ice over the past few years, particularly in the summer. (Sea ice grows and shrinks seasonally).

Both of the big ice sheets on the planet - Greenland and Antarctica - are losing ice, and recently this ice loss has been speeding up. Overall, scientists believe that current global ice loss is indicative of man-made climate change.

Meanwhile, in his Sunday Telegraph column Booker is still trying to whip up outrage about the BBC's documentary series 'Frozen Planet'.  Over the weekend he argued that the programme had misrepresented the speed at which 'ice is melting at the poles'.

Booker writes that Frozen Planet contained:

"a much more serious misrepresentation - of the speed at which ice is melting at the poles... as anyone can see, from satellite-based charts on the Cryosphere Today website, the extent of polar sea ice was last year 1.6 million square kilometres greater than its average over the last 30 years - something which could never have been guessed from Attenborough's dramatic film sequences..."

In fact, Booker is wrong. It could be a case of dodgy subediting, but given his past writings about climate change, it's more likely that he is twisting data to keep his campaign against Frozen Planet going.

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Daily Mail prints third correction to its energy bills coverage

  • 19 Dec 2011, 11:00
  • Christian Hunt

Today's copy of the Daily Mail is carrying another correction to their coverage of energy bills - specifically the cost of green policies and their impact on consumers. It reads:

Recent editorials referring to a leaked Government memo suggested that scapping 'green taxes' would save households 30% - or £300 - on their current energy bills. In fact the memo, which was reported by several newpapers, was outlining estimates for 2020 and should have specified electricity prices rather than energy bills.

This is the third time I have complained to the PCC about the Mail group's use of inaccurate figures to inflate the costs of green policies to consumers, and the third time they have printed a correction. Details of the two previous corrections which the Mail has printed following these PCC complaints are here and here.

This particular correction follows two editorials printed by the Mail in September, both of which stated that 'green taxes and subsidies' were currently adding £300 to consumers energy bills. The first read:

"First, the millionaire Cabinet minister Chris Huhne blames the public for the crippling size of energy bills - arguing people could save £300 each if they weren't too lazy to switch supplier. He conveniently forgets that £300 is the exact sum added to gas and electric bills by 'green taxes' and subsidies to pay for landscape-destroying wind farms..."

The second stated -

"If [Chris Huhne] scrapped green taxes, he would save every household some £300 at a stroke. Mr Huhne claims he wants the 'best possible deal for consumers'. What better way to prove it?"

The source for these claims turned out to be a leaked government memo which prompted a front-page story in the Telegraph at the beginning of September.

The memo as it was printed in the Telegraph was itself confused. It stated both that government policies will add around 30% to the price of electricity for a typical household by 2020, and that government policies will add 30% to domestic energy bills by 2020. These are two quite different things, so it didn't make much sense.

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Wrong by a factor of eight: the FT on green energy costs report

  • 16 Dec 2011, 14:33
  • Robin Webster

Yesterday we wrote about the media coverage of the Climate Change Committee's analysis of energy bills, in particular highlighting some pretty epic cherrypicking by the Daily Mail.

We commented at the time that, apart from the Mail article, the reporting had been pretty accurate. However, we actually missed what seems to be the most inaccurate presentation of the Committee's findings, because we didn't look properly at the FT's article (£ - or here for free, rewritten a little). (Thanks @neilstockley for bringing it to our attention.)

The FT's article is headlined "Household energy bills to rise by £100 a year", and the first sentence reads:

Consumers can expect their household energy bills to increase by £100 a year over the current decade to support carbon-reduction commitments, according to a government-sponsored report.

This just seems to be plain wrong. The CCC's report says that average household energy bills will rise from around £1060 in 2010 to £1250 in 2020. This is a rise of £190 in total - nowhere near "£100 a year".

Over the decade, the CCC estimate that the impact of 'green measures' on bills will increase by £110, compared to now.

The FT's estimate of costs to 'support carbon-reduction commitments' over the same period amounts to £900 by 2020  - so in reporting the CCC's findings, they are out by a factor of about eight.

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Drop the Methane Bomb

  • 16 Dec 2011, 11:40
  • Christian Hunt

Source: NOAA Ocean Explorer

There's a lot of methane in the Arctic deep freeze, where ice formations called 'clathrates' trap huge amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas in the Arctic Ocean sea bed. For the intelligent apes currently experimenting with the Earth's atmosphere (that would be us), that methane is in exactly the right place - kept safely out of the atmosphere.

The question is, with the Arctic warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet, do we need to worry about it thawing out? And so, every now and again, you'll see newspaper articles about a ' methane time bomb' in the Arctic. The latest comes from the Independent, who ran a story headlined ' Shock as retreat of Arctic sea ice releases deadly greenhouse gas'.

Based on an interview with Igor Semiletov, a professor at the International Arctic Research Centre in Alaska, the article details how his research has found large 'plumes' of methane bubbling up from the sea bed of the Arctic ocean:

"This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing," Dr Semiletov said. "I was most impressed by the sheer scale and high density of the plumes. Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them."

The Independent then gives us the background:

"...scientists estimate that there are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost, which extends from the mainland into the seabed of the relatively shallow sea of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. One of the greatest fears is that with the disappearance of the Arctic sea-ice in summer, and rapidly rising temperatures across the entire region, which are already melting the Siberian permafrost, the trapped methane could be suddenly released into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change."

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Electricity prices to rise 25% because of green measures say CCC - impact on bills less clear cut

  • 15 Dec 2011, 14:34
  • Robin Webster

Household energy bills are on the news agenda today, as the Climate Change Committee release a short report into the impact meeting the UK's carbon budgets will have on household energy bills. In response, the anti-'green stealth tax' campaign have had to do some quite inventive reporting - apparently cherry-picking figures that apply to less than 1 in 10 UK households.

The CCC press release is titled: "Household energy bill increases caused primarily by rising cost of gas, not environmental policies", and so they are in agreement with recent analysis from both energy regulator Ofgem and DECC that bill increases have more to do with gas price rises than green policies.

The CCC say that between 2006 and 2010, green policies added about £75 to bills, while rising gas prices contributed around £290. In the future, the Committee estimate that green measures will add a further £110 to bills by 2020, and that the rise in the price of gas will again be more significant, adding £175.

In total, by 2020, the CCC predict green measures will add around £190 to an average bill (£130 from measures to support greener power, £60 to support energy efficiency measures in homes), and will make up 16% of the total bill of £1250.

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Climate skeptics react to Durban

  • 13 Dec 2011, 16:00
  • Robin Webster

There's been a complex reaction to the outcome of the UN climate talks at Durban. Many have focused on the political victory - the remarkable achievement of binding the US, China and India to an outcome with "legal force".

On the other hand, some have labelled it a failure as any deal made will not come into force until 2020, and environmental groups are unanimously focused on pointing out the deal will not currently prevent a 2C temperature rise.

Climate skeptic lobbyists have also been giving their thoughts. Before the agreement was finalised, Lord Monckton, writing on the prominent climate skeptic blog Watts Up With That, sounded the alarm (again) over the UN's plot to bring about 'world government'. Whilst the outcome of the talks still remained unclear, he wrote that:

"The profiteering UN bureaucrats here think otherwise. Their plans to establish a world government paid for by the West on the pretext of dealing with the non-problem of "global warming" are now well in hand.

It is hard to imagine the exhausted UN delegates on Sunday morning having the energy left to establish a world government, but we may have missed something.

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Frozen Planet: the climate science top six

  • 09 Dec 2011, 17:00
  • Ros Donald

The BBC's landmark series Frozen Planet ended yesterday with a stark exploration of the effects of climate change already apparent in the Arctic and Antarctic, where warming is occurring twice as fast as it is in the rest of the world. Here's our rundown of six scientific concepts covered in the episode.

1. First, Attenborough says sea ice thickness has halved since the 1980s and Arctic sea ice extent has reduced. We're now able to judge how far Arctic sea ice thickness has reduced, Attenborough says, because the Russian government has allowed access to data collected by submarine crews during the Cold War.

Studies show that since the 1970s summer Arctic sea ice extent has decreased by nearly a third, the average Arctic sea ice thickness at the end of the melt season has roughly halved since the 1980s, and that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer months within 30 years.

The National Snow and Ice Data Center's arctic sea ice news and analysis page estimates that average Arctic sea ice extent for November 2011 was 502,000 square miles below the 1979-2000 average. The article recommends a paper by Cohen and Jones which attempted to produce a more accurate index for winter predictions as further reading, so we shall do the same.

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Britain, a nation of climate sceptics? Really?

  • 09 Dec 2011, 09:44
  • Christian Hunt

Climate communicator and academic at Imperial College Dr Alice Bell has been examinging in detail the British Social Attitudes survey that came out earlier this week.

The survey included a section on British attitudes towards the environment, and showed what appears to be a decline in Environmental concern in the British public - in 2010 37% said many claims about environmental threats were "exaggerated", up from 24% in 2000.

Climate skeptic blog Watts up with That posted it under the header 'We're Winning The Battle For Hearts And Minds'.

As we have pointed out in the past, (examining if people are 'bored' by climate change, on looking at climate skepticism in detail, or on tea party members and their attitudes towards climate) polling requires careful interpretation, and Alice Bell has looked closely at the section in question. She finds some reasons to take the numbers seriuously, but also some unanswered questions about how the researchers came to their conclusions -

...I did think data around whether people agreed with the statement "Every time we use coal or gas or oil we contribute to climate change" was something climate communications people should worry about. In 2000, 35% said this statement was definitely true, 46% said it was probably true and 12% said definitely/ probably not true. For 2010 the results change to 20%, 51% and 17% respectively. There were also marked drops in concerns over the impact of cars and agriculture. As the report says, this might be due to people thinking they've been partly solved by "cleaner" technologies; it's harder to explain away the impact of coal/ gas/ oil on climate statement quite so easily though. If you want something cheering, maybe age will help though: the sharpest drop in people agreeing that climate change was dangerous came from people 55+. This was down 13% from 56% to 43% with over 55-64 bracket and down 19% from 47% to 28% with over 65′s, but only down 3% and 1 % respectively to 48% with 18-34s and 15-54s (p103). I'm not sure 48% agreement is a particularly good score though anyway.

What most online coverage from skeptics and the media has focused on has been the link the BSA researchers make between the 'climategate' episode and resulting media coverage, and a rise in climate scepticism. The blog is interesting on that point - again, suggesting that things are more complicated than the top line of the polling:

One final thing that bugged me about this report was that it didn't really examine how and where people got their information about the environment from, and yet still felt able to make loose connections between the timing of Climategate and the apparent rise in scepticism. From the final pages: "we conclude that media coverage may make a difference - not least 'new' media and the internet 'blogosphere' where unfounded opinion can sometimes be favoured over scientific fact" (p106). The impact of the media on people's understanding, reasoning and framing of any issue, perhaps in particular ones including esoteric expertise like climate science, is incredibly complex, and the BSA report writers should have known better. They should certainly know better than to make loose comments about unfounded opinion on blogosphere (which is a large, diverse and porous area of activity). I also don't see how they can look at a change over ten years and say it has to be something that happened in 2009, no matter how much media ink was spilled. To their credit they do also say it could also be matter of fatigue and refer to financial cost, etc. Personally, I'd like to see them acknowledge that they don't know and call for investment in more research here.

Worth reading in full, here.

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Climate change causes children to shrink

  • 08 Dec 2011, 17:30
  • Robin Webster

The climate data analyst Tamino, author of the blog Open Mind, has posted a clever deconstruction of a popular climate skeptic argument on his blog Open Mind.

The blog begins:

Suppose, just for argument's sake, that when your son Johnny turned 2 years old you decided to monitor his growth. His birthday is Jan. 1, so on the first of every month you measure his height - you even mount a tape measure permanently on the wall so you can measure him in the same location each time.

The topic alluded to is temperature rise, and the ways in which data is misrepresented and manipulated by those who wish to argue that temperatures are not going up - or ' global warming has stopped '.

We've explained why this argument is statistically and scientifically flawed here, but Tamino has a lot more fun with it.

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Climate skeptics advise: Don't mess with Attenborough

  • 08 Dec 2011, 13:00
  • Christian Hunt

Source: BBC

At a  meeting at the House of Commons last week, climate skeptic Dr. Philip Stott warned against criticising David Attenborough's views on climate change. Going after a "national treasure", he suggested, could "backfire".

It's advice that skeptic journalist Christopher Booker ignores in the Daily Mail today as he launches an  attack on 'Frozen Planet', fronted by Attenborough, in order to promote his new report on climate change "bias" at the BBC.

Booker is clearly aware that 'national treasure' Attenborough is a tricky target, and this makes for a rather disjointed article which praises Frozen Planet for its "breathtaking footage", while criticising Attenborough for a "deeply disappointing" show that put over an "apocalyptic message" about climate change.

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