Analysis

Climate snails study shows peer review continues to function as expected

  • 22 Sep 2014, 15:10
  • Roz Pidcock

Something is amiss in the world of scientific publishing, claimed The Times this weekend. And not for the first time. This is the latest in a  series  of articles suggesting research downplaying the seriousness of climate change impacts is being suppressed by top scientific journals.

Last time, scientists dismissed the Times' story as a case of peer review in action. It's difficult to see what the difference is this time.

"False alarm"

Seven years ago, a conservation scientist in the Seychelles published a paper in one of the Royal Society's journals, Biological Letters. It concluded the only known population of a type of snail was now thought to be extinct, after declining rapidly in the late 20th century.

In Saturday's Times article, journalist Ben Webster said:

"[The research] was presented as shocking evidence of the damage being done by climate change: a species driven to extinction because of a decline in rainfall in its only habitat."

In its recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the fast pace of climate change could have consequences for many species. It concluded:

"A large fraction of both terrestrial and freshwater species faces increased extinction risk under projected climate change during and beyond the 21st century."

Well, the snail has apparently been rediscovered on a remote island. The Times suggests this "prompts questions" over the Royal Society "raising false alarm" about climate change.

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Factcheck: Telegraph wrongly accuses BBC of “blatantly untrue” climate reporting

  • 15 Sep 2014, 15:25
  • Roz Pidcock

In yesterday's Telegraph, climate skeptic commentator Christopher Booker argues a recent BBC News piece makes claims about rising carbon dioxide that are "blatantly untrue".

He also accuses the broadcaster of repeating theories about ocean warming that scientists have "ridiculed as make-believe". But a quick look shows his accusations don't stand up.

Carbon rising

In an article  criticising the broadcaster for its climate science coverage, Booker cites a BBC radio news article on a recent World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) report.

The report looked in detail at carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and how they're changing. It found greenhouse gases reached a record high of 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013 - that's 42 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels.

Global carbon dioxide concentrations rose by nearly 3 ppm from 2012 to 2013 - the largest annual increase since 1984, the report also found.

WMO_CO2_growth

Global growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide from 1984 to 2013 (shaded columns are annual averages). Source: WMO annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin for 2013

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Why undersea fracking is unlikely to give Scotland a £600 billion windfall

  • 05 Sep 2014, 13:30
  • Mat Hope

Scotland flag waving | Shutterstock

As Scotland prepares to decide whether to vote 'yes' for independence, the North Sea oil and gas industry's economic prospects have become something of a political football.

Today, a new report backed by the 'Yes' campaign claims the industry's taxes could be worth over £600 billion. But other experts have been quick to cast doubt on the findings.

Geologists think there's still plenty of oil and gas under the North Sea. The problem is that companies have extracted most of the easy-to-reach resources. Uncertainty around the fate of the remaining oil and gas has created space for speculation over how much the industry is worth.

That's where today's  report from consultancy N-56, founded by  a Yes campaign board member, fits in. It claims there could be around 45 billion barrels of oil and gas remaining - almost double previous estimates - worth £665 billion in tax receipts.

Conventional oil and gas

The North Sea's oil and gas reserves are becoming depleted, with companies extracting fewer and fewer barrels each year. Experts believe the industry could persist for  a few more decades, but only if companies are willing to explore hard to reach spots.

Whether they will - or even can - access such resources is very open to debate, however.

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Factcheck: Is climate change linked to recent UK flooding?

  • 20 Aug 2014, 14:15
  • Roz Pidcock

This morning's  Times claims new research says the increase in flooding in Britain in recent times is due to urban expansion and population growth, rather than climate change.

According to the piece, this "does not agree" with warnings from scientists that climate change can be linked to recent flooding. But a quick look at the science shows a combination of land use and climate change is upping the risk of flooding in the UK.

"Misquote"

The Times story is based on a new study from the University of Southampton. The number of reported flooding events in the UK grew between 1884 to 2013, according to the research.

But although the number of reported floods went up, it's mainly down to more people being exposed, the authors tell us. During that time, the population grew from 38.2 to 59.1 million.

If you remove the effect of population rise, there's no longer a clear increase in the number of reported flooding events, the report suggests. This is presumably where the Times draws its conclusion that the new research "rules out a link between last year's winter flooding and climate change".

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Christopher Booker's curiously distorted views on wind power

  • 04 Aug 2014, 14:45
  • Simon Evans

Climate sceptic columnist Christopher Booker has launched his latest attack on wind power, but the picture he presents of the technology is curiously distorted.

In an  article for the Daily Mail he says the UK is suffering "a bout of collective insanity over renewable energy, for which it is hard to think of any historical parallel".

We've gone through Booker's piece, and noted some things you probably wouldn't know after reading it.

1) UK windfarms produce more power than Drax

Booker's dislike of windfarms seems to verge on the evangelical. But in his latest piece he sticks to the numbers in explaining his "crucial objection" to the technology. Unfortunately, the numbers are inaccurate or misleading.

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Scientists lambast The Australian for misleading article on deep ocean cooling

  • 28 Jul 2014, 13:50
  • Roz Pidcock

An article in Friday's  The Australian suggested brand new research by two eminent oceanographers casts doubt on scientific understanding of global warming. But the authors of the research have taken the newspaper to task for its coverage of their work.

The research by Carl Wunsch from Harvard University and Patrick Heimbach from MIT found temperatures seem to be falling in parts of the very deep ocean, known as 'the abyss'.

In a piece headline headlined "Puzzle of deep ocean cooling", journalist Graham Lloyd of the Australian interpreted the new research for readers:

"The deep oceans have been cooling for the past two decades and [so] it is not possible to say whether changes in ocean heat adequately explain the "pause" in global warming".

But the authors think Lloyd's article is misleading. In an  letter to the editor in today's edition of the Australian, they say:

"The article by Graham Lloyd will likely leave a mis-impression with many of your readers concerning the substance of our paper."

Wunsch tells us Lloyd's article "cherrypicks" statements from their paper and "misses some key points".

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Climate scientists tell us why it’s “utterly, utterly normal” to have a paper rejected

  • 09 Jul 2014, 13:30
  • Roz Pidcock

TimesdissentAn  article in yesterday's Times featured claims that a climate scientist's work was "censored" because it "questioned the accuracy of computer models used to predict global warming".

Rather less excitingly, what actually happened was an "utterly, utterly normal" example of peer review in action, scientists tell us.

The scientist involved agrees that the journal's comments were correct, and his paper was subsequently published - it's available here.

So what's the story?

Accusations of censorship

The Times  article - entitled 'Voices of dissent drowned out by climate change scientists' discusses research German climate scientist Vladimir Semenov submitted to the Journal of Climate in 2009.

Ben Webster, an experienced environment correspondent, suggests parts of Semenov's paper were "deleted" before publication because they represented a "voice of dissent". Webster says:

"The paper suggested that the computer models used by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were flawed, resulting in human influence on the climate being exaggerated and the impact of natural variability being underplayed."

Semenov is quoted as suggesting the journal's intervention amounted to "some kind of censorship". Had the paper not been revised, it could have had "profound implications", the Times claims.

 

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The verdict on smart meter privacy, security and health concerns as UK smart meter rollout begins

  • 08 Jul 2014, 10:00
  • Ros Donald

Adapted from a blog originally posted in June 2012

Will the UK government's planned rollout of smart meters leave homes vulnerable to marketing companies desperate for us to overshare information about our most personal habits? Will an information grid linked to energy delivery systems be open to hackers, leaving whole districts vulnerable to disruption? Will smart meters really create a "spy in every home", as the Daily Mail has reported? We take a look at the risks.

Smart meters give people detailed information about how much energy they use and when. The theory is that this can help reduce bills, and level out peak-time stresses on the grid. As such, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is promoting smart meters as a tool for helping the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and plans to ensure one is installed in every home starting this week.

Privacy: will my smart meter be able to track what I do at home?

The short answer is yes - as long as you're using electricity. Energy meters show which appliances use the most electricity so that you can plan energy use effectively. Because of the different ways that appliances use electricity, such data could, for example, reveal whether you use medical devices or baby monitors, or even show the TV programme you're watching. And obviously, it can give information on when you're in or out, or track when you toilet light goes on. So, technically, it might know when you are on the loo.

The Mail reported that this information will be "will be collected every 30 minutes and beamed from a box in the home to the central databases." Some groups are worried about this. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which tracks privacy issues in Europe, produced a report last week warning that smart meter rollout will " enable massive collection of personal data which can track what members of a household do". EDPS is concerned that patterns and profiles could be mined for marketing and advertising, or price discrimination, and is asking the European Commission to consider legislating to protect consumers.

It does sound pretty alarming. However, the government appears to have taken some of these worries to heart already, outlining plans in April designed to ensure consumers have control over how much data they share with suppliers and third parties. 

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Factcheck: What’s the significance of a record high in Antarctic sea ice?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 16:20
  • Roz Pidcock

Sea ice around Antarctica is growing, and it's a scientific puzzle. But while the Mail on Sunday suggests this means climate change is less of a problem than scientists say, sea ice is only part of what's going on in Antarctica, and the world as a whole is losing ice rapidly.

A record high

An article in yesterday's Mail on Sunday carries the headline:

'Global warming computer models confounded as Antarctic sea ice hits new record high'

This follows news last week from scientists at the University of Illinois that the area covered by sea ice surrounding Antarctica hit a record high on 29th June, with about two million square kilometres in June more ice compared to the long term average.

Antractic Sea Ice _June 2014

Antarctic sea ice reached a record high in June, with 2.1 million square kilometres more than the long term average. Source: US National Snow and Ice Data Centre ( NSIDC)

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Factcheck: Has the US shale gas revolution saved more carbon than the entire solar and wind industry?

  • 07 Jul 2014, 14:55
  • Simon Evans

CC2.0 Dennis Dimick

The American shale gas revolution shaved more off global carbon emissions than all the world's windfarms and solar panels put together in 2012 according to Chris Faulkner, boss of US fracking firm Breitling Energy.

We think he's wrong. Even with some pretty heroic assumptions, he's only almost right. Let's see why.

The UK connection

Faulkner made his claim at a fringe meeting of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. He had been invited to speak by UK Conservative MP David Davis, a long-standing critic of climate change policies in general and wind energy in particular.

Faulker said:

"In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 300 million tonnes. Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions, at a maximum, by 275 million tonnes. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world."

US coal emissions

To start with, let's look at US coal emissions. In 2012, US coal plants emitted 1,653 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. That's 529 million tonnes below peak coal emissions, which were 2,182 million tonnes in 2005.

Let's generously assume all of that reduction is due to cheap shale gas displacing coal use. It takes about half as much carbon to generate a unit of electricity from gas as it does from coal. So the maximum carbon saving is half the coal emissions avoided. That's 265 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, in the same ballpark as the 300 million tonnes Faulkner claimed.

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