Pen Hadow isn’t news
October 15, 2009, 9:59 am
Filed under: Global change, Media

Yes, its melting

Yes, it's melting

Having been a little disobliging about Pen Hadow, an explorer, in a previous post about “Heroes of the Environment” I now feel moved to return, briefly, to the subject. This morning the BBC is putting data gathered during Hadow’s recent Arctic adventure — a trek with two companions, called the Catlin Arctic Survey, that was meant to get to the North Pole but didn’t — into its main radio news bulletins at the moment. As Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge puts it in the BBC’s online version of the story and many other places:

The Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the new consensus view – based on seasonal variation of ice extent and thickness, changes in temperatures, winds and especially ice composition – that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years, and that much of the decrease will be happening within 10 years.

Which seems fine: but not news. What we have here is a consensus for which, because it is a consensus, we must assume there is already a lot of evidence, being backed up by some incremental unpublished data (pdf of science findings) that will later be presented at the Copenhagen meeting and submitted to Cold Regions Science and Technology, a journal I am pretty sure that the BBC does not often use as a source. What Wadhams says seems true and sensible, but reporting stuff that is widely accepted as news doesn’t.

To be fair, the BBC further reports that

Pen Hadow admitted that the expedition had not led to “a giant leap forward in understanding” but had been useful as an incremental step in the science of answering the key questions about the Arctic.

but it doesn’t go on to say why it reports this incremental step. The answer, obviously, is that it thinks the public likes explorers, and will find science done by explorers interesting, even if the equipment broke down and the observations are not yet of any proven value; it also probably thinks that raising awareness about global warming is a good thing. Personally I find people who “explore” a planet that has already been pretty thoroughly explored  and do so in deliberately over-challenging and attention-seeking ways (Hadow first came to fame walking to the North Pole on his own without resupply) a little off-putting, even, in my more misanthropic moods, distasteful, though on the only time I met one he seemed a nice enough chap (that said, we were both talking to Edwina Curry, so contrast may have had something to do with it). If such people want to try to contribute to science and advertise a reinsurance company as they do so, fair enough (though the apparent shennanigans with data on their website suggest that this most recent undertaking was not utterly rigorous in its approach). But following HRH the Prince of Wales, who says this is a “remarkably important project”, in treating this data gathering as news seems to be a pretty straightforward mistake, even before you get on to the mistakes in headlining that “news”, such as “North Pole ice cap gone in 10 years“.

The generally grumpy tone of this post, and the unaccustomed act of linking to Watts, brings to mind a point a friend recently made to me — that I am more critical of  climate-change claims that tilt beyond science into propaganda in private than I am in public. I think that to the extent this is true it is only because most of what I do in public isn’t about that sort of thing; I don’t spend much time attacking climate sceptics in public, either, and that certainly shouldn’t be seen as suggesting support. But while I am tapping away I will take this opportunity to say that I think people who talk about a climate sensitivity of more than 4ºC as remotely likely need to  explain why they think this when others such as James Annan have argued well against it*. And I think when people talk about multi-metre sea-level rises, as  Jonathan Porritt did on Radio 4 recently (“I have increasingly less time for those whose nimby-ist sentiments persuade them that somehow the best route to defending their cherished landscapes is by letting it be drowned by a huge amount later on in life. Which particular bit of the landscape do you want to defend James if what we’re threatened by is a seven metre rise in sea levels? ” — rtf transcript), they need to make clear that they are talking about the situation that’s not “later on in life” for anyone who doesn’t expect to live for a few centuries.

*hint: explanations that include phrases such as “I don’t use the classical Charney measure of sensitivity because I think one also has to take into account biosphere and other long-term feedbacks to which it pays no heed” seem to me to be headed in a plausible direction; I may also show sympathy to “unlikely events in the long tail dominate the risk assessment”, though rather less so…

Not terribly relevant image from A Davies/Greenpeace, used under a Creative Commons licence


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