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.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The 'camouflageon' - or a 'Red List' for mythical monsters? Yeti'nother sign of green madness?.....

The bureaucratic mind knows no limits to its PC daftness, especially when linked to green theology. The Scotsman (May 4) has it all: 'Swedes left with a monster problem':

"The placing of a mythical monster on Sweden’s endangered species list, in an apparent fit of bureaucratic zeal, has caused an administrative problem for the country’s authorities."

"'During a routine inspection of the environment court in Jaemtland recently, we came across a decision that attracted our interest,'" said Nils-Olof Berggren, a Swedish parliamentary ombudsman."

Mr Berggren found there was a decision from 1986 placing the monster under protection.

The 'Legend' has it that this is a giant serpent, similar to our own dear 'Nessie', and that it has lived for centuries in Sweden’s fifth-largest lake, Lake Storsjo(e)n. 500 people claim to have seen the 'phantom', describing it as a snake-like animal, with a dog’s head [clearly barking] and fins on its neck. Sadly, however, there aren't even any dodgy, faded photographs I can show you - not a patch on 'Nessie'.

Nevertheless, the local museum is not to be put off, as is so excitedly reported by that ever-essential web site, Monster Tracker: "A remarkable find can be seen at Jamtli, the Museum of Jämtland. In a glass jar there is a dead animal, which is said to be an embryo of Storsjöodjuret. It was said to be found on the shore of lake Storsjön on 18th June 1984." And there's the jar to prove it.....

You can also learn more about the beast at the - "Wait for it!" - 'Metareligion' Web Site: 'Storsjoodjuret' [which means "The Monster of Lake Storsjon"]:

"In the 19th century, nearly all the witnesses described a 'waterhorse', its head surrounded by a long white mane floating in the water. Contemporary witnesses don't seem to notice its horse-like head and mane. My Swedish correspondent dryly describes the beast as a 'camouflageon' - a hitherto unknown species of highly developed amphibian chameleon."

What a perfect word - a 'camouflageon'; it could describe everything - never mind mythical beasties - from jumping genes to 'global warming'!

So here's my next campaign for the Web: "Save Shelob!"; "No Spiderism!; "Spare the last-remaining Big Beleriand Spider"; "Hobbits should be tried for killing last Big Spider"; "Save Mirkwood for the Spiders"; "Spiders-R-Us"; "Outlaw Arachnophobia"; "Spiders are in Harmony with Nature"; "Spiders wouldn't hurt a fly!"

Philip, spinning against nonsense! Mind you, I've always wanted to be Professor Challenger with that pterodactyl! Flights of fancy, of course. Coffee time!

Monday, May 03, 2004

"A skilful obscurantist", moi!.....

I quite liked being dubbed "a skilful obscurantist" in today's The Groaniad: 'Consensus is not proof ' ('Letters', The Guardian, May 3). Better than being called an 'obscurant', and, in climate-change terms, to 'cloud over' seems more than apposite. I wonder if, however, it may be a case of obscurum per obscurius (or ignotum per ignotius).

So, let me cloud over climate change just a teeny aerosol more. Here's a list of some of the more important factors governing climate change, all, of course, working together at different, but intermeshed, time-scales:

+ The changing cosmic ray flux (CRF);
+ Solar magnetic cycles;
+ Sunspot cycles;
+ Meteorite impacts;
+ Cosmic dust;
+ Changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun;
+ Changes in the angle of tilt of the Earth upon its axis;
+ Shorter duration 'wobbles' of the Earth upon its axis;
+ The changing shape of the Earth, or the Earth's mean dynamic oblateness parameter (J2);
+ The changing rotational velocity of the Earth's core;
+ Changes in the Earth's magnetic field;
+ Tectonic movements of the Earth;
+ Volcanic eruptions;
+ Changes in the circulation patterns of the oceans;
+ Changes in ocean salinity and chemistry;
+ Changes in ice-sheet stability (the mass-balance of glaciers);
+ Changes in sea-ice thickness;
+ Changes in atmospheric water vapour, the most important 'greenhouse' gas of all;
+ Clouds and cloudiness;
+ Natural variations in atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide and methane
+ Changing albedo (reflectivity of Earth) through landscape change, natural and human;
+ Overall surface radiative energy fluxes;
+ Vegetation, agricultural and industrial fires and their emissions;
+ The emission of aerosols, both natural and human;
+ The emission of tar balls;
+ Human-induced emission of 'greenhouse' gases;
+ Other known factors not listed;
+ Unknown factors;
+ Non-linear feedback links for all of the above;
+ The chaotic factor - the flip of a butterfly's wing.

Yes, of course, we can manage climate change predictably by fiddling at the margins with a couple of politically-chosen factors [apologies, British irony again]. Pity that in so complex a coupled, non-linear, chaotic system, not doing something at the margins is as unpredictable as doing something.

Philip, delighted to be clouding the issue. He will continue to do so. Afternoon tea?

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Countryside constructs, or Aga Saga sensibilities.....

Sometimes environmental reporting in The Observer is of Posy Simmonds-like risibility. Today, we have a classic episode: 'Families' lives poisoned by crop spraying' (The Observer, May 2). The opening of this piece is pure Aga Saga:

"They left London to raise a family in the rural serenity of Lincolnshire. Now they fear the fields that surround their cottage are slowly killing them because of the pesticides used to spray crops."

First, you will note that nobody thought to interview a family who had lived around Brigg, say, for all their working lives, or even for generations. Of course, these might have known that Lincolnshire is a working country county where farmers produce things. Secondly, the protagonists had to be ex-Londoners (I don't blame them, just the reporting), and just examine the language of 'the rural idyll': "left to raise a family" [Hard luck to the millions who remain - I suggest you all leg it up to Lincolnshire too. Lincoln would love that!], "serenity", and "cottage". Oh! It is so Miss Marple, so Masterpiece Theatre! We are in Tweesby-in-Dale, for sure. These are the Aga Saga sensibilities of a metropolitan elite newspaper, and they show, yet again, how far most of our Sundays are from down-to-earth, regional Britain. Dreadful, dreadful stuff.

But such sensibilities know no bounds to their patronising attitudes. In the same newspaper, we have the following: 'Why a day in the country is a hard mountain to climb for black Britons' (The Observer, May 2). In this, environmental groups are reported as lamenting the fact that too few ethnic minorities visit the countryside for recreation (I suspect some organisations are under pressure to achieve PC statistics and targets for their visitor groups).

Most sadly, I agree that there are instances where black Britons who do go into the countryside are given a frosty reception in the pub or cafe. I don't think this is always an intrinsically racist reaction, as such, but more an insular fear of the 'other' (especially of the urban 'other' - constructs go both ways) and of all 'incomers', however temporary the visit. But thinking more deeply, has it dawned on the 'social engineers' reported in this piece that many folk might not want to go into the countryside in the first place? We forget too easily in our arrogance that the writ of the European, post-industrial, romantic myth about the [wet, cold and muddy] countryside is an exception in the world at large, and not the norm. Moreover, the old view still lingers in Britain, despite abundant evidence to the contrary, that the countryside is somehow more 'moral', and 'God made the country/Man made the town'.

We should, however, remember that many of our ethnic minorities have only recently fled from rural drudgery and deep poverty to try to find a better life in towns and cities. On a world scale, the Dick Whittington Syndrome far, far outweighs the Aga Saga Syndrome of the rich and the pampered. Yes, of course, we must most certainly make things as welcoming as possible for all in the countryside, but please, please permit people to make their own leisure choices. I have one friend, for example, who loathes the countryside in every guise. Place him in a muddy field, and he just wants to run. One look at Parliament Hill Fields, even, and he would have it covered with buildings in the twinkling of an eye. People have many different constructs of 'the countryside', from the 'cottage-with-roses-round-the-door' to a backward land of dung and death. It is a tad racist, and culturalist, to try to impose one set of constructs on others.

But let's get real. Despite many efforts to kill it off, the countryside still persists in Britain - just - as a working domain. Perhaps the Aga Saga brigade would be better going after that 'Essential Tuscany' currently on offer for a piccolo £2 million in the 'Homes' Section of a rival Sunday broadsheet.

Mind you, all this pales into insignificance when we turn to The Independent on Sunday (as ever). Today's prize for daft environmental reporting must go to this piece of hyperbole: 'Why Antarctica will soon be the only place to live - literally' (The Independent on Sunday, May 2).

So there you have it. Forget Tuscany, folks. Keep that for 'Under the Tuscan sun'. After all, you'll soon be able to buy a cottage-with-roses-round-the-door in Queen Maud Land. How (n)ice.

Philip, looking forward to seeing his daughter who lives in a country town surrounded by sugar beet and smells. Lorry [truck!]-load of laughs.

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

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