A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Cooling not warming, and those organic myths revisited.....

Well, the newspapers are full of frolics today. First, of course, there is "the final proof" of 'global warming' (as if climate change - warming or cooling - were something never heard of before!). This all refers to the Nature paper just published (Nature, 429, 2004, 55-58).

I note that critics [best leave this battle to the satellite and balloon specialists, I think] are already out-and-about questioning the whole caboodle (see, for example, this excellent piece, 'Hotly disputed UW analysis makes a case for warming', in The Seattle Times May 6, as well as this full critique just up: 'When is global warming really a cooling?').

Apparently, the critics are pointing out that to combine the two key channels [channels 2 {the troposphere} and 4 {the lower stratosphere} of the Microwave Sounding Units (MSU) on the NOAA polar-orbiting satellites that measure the deep layers of the atmosphere] may well lead to a misinterpretation of stratospheric cooling as tropospheric warming (there simply isn't enough percentage overlap). Dr. Roy W. Spencer, Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama, for one, argues that, for the method to work (even serendipiditously), the temperature trends from the upper troposphere to the lower stratosphere would have to be constant with height, but that they are not. Weather balloon evidence suggests that the trends change from warming to strong cooling over the relevant altitude range.

But is this really the fundamental question, I ask myself over coffee? I think we need to tease out the issues concerning the construct, 'global warming', much more clearly. Is climate changing? Of course it is, and probably at all levels, whatever the directions. Change is the norm, not the exception. Do we know the long-term direction of these changes? I personally believe not. Climate will probably catch us all out in the end. Are humans contributing to climate change? Certainly, and through all sorts of influences, not just emissions, such as aerosols and how we alter the reflectivity of the Earth's surface (the albedo). Unfortunately, we know too little about most of these factors. Finally (and this is the only question that truly matters), can we manage climate change predictably by adjusting at the margins one human factor? Absolutely 100% not! That is the big, big - indeed stratospheric - conceit!

Secondly, today, Dick Taverne has written a most trenchant attack on the inflated myths that are 'organic' food: 'The costly fraud that is organic food' (The Guardian, May 6):

"The organic movement was inspired by the mysticism of Rudolf Steiner, who believed in planting according to the phases of the moon, enriching the soil through cowhorns stuffed with entrails, and who taught that chemical fertilisers damage the brain. It is based on the belief that nature knows best and science is dangerous.

The SA [Soil Association] has argued that organic farming cannot be judged by scientific criteria because 'the current tools of scientific understanding are not sufficiently developed' to measure its virtues. It seizes on any findings, however flimsy, that seem to confirm its claims and dismisses any contradictory evidence as irrelevant, prejudiced or influenced by the biotechnology industry.

It has bitterly denounced the Food Standards Agency, an impartial body set up by government to safeguard our welfare, which refuses to endorse the claims made for organic food. Only in January the agency declared that 'on the basis of currentevidence ... organic food is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally'.

It is claimed that organic food is more natural and that its reliance on natural chemicals makes it safer than food grown with the help of synthetic ones. This is nonsense. There is nothing wholesome about natural chemicals like ricin or aflatoxin or botulinum toxin, or especially dangerous about synthetic chemicals like the sulphonamides, isoniazid that cures TB, or the painkiller paracetamol."

"Right on, Old Bean!" This is thus a rumbustious day to leave everything behind and head for southern Italy (which is exactly what I am doing!). I'll be back blogging in just over a week's time. In the meantime, it's Stratospheric Seagulls over Sorrento and let's hope that old Vesuvius doesn't choose this moment to decide to play its own inimitable role in climate change and erupt! What a lava that would be, he says ashen-faced!

But back to the Nature article for a final fling! I'll love you and leave you with Melanie Phillips' splendid virtual broadside: 'Hot air and dirty tricks' (Diary, May 6). "Bene, bene!"

Ciao for now, Philip the Elder.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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