Slowly and surely the forces of climate science misinformation reach out from their academic bases to throttle debate and proscribe off-message reporting. Leading the way recently was the University of Exeter, where an Associate Professor of Geography found a “distinct problem” in pictures being published of blue seas and people on the beach during a summer heatwave while the climate is breaking down. Over in the Politics Department, another associate professor is investigating how computers can be used to help track down climate change wrongthink.
Writing in the Guardian, Associate Professor Saffron O’Neill complained that ‘fun in the sun’ photos were a dangerous distraction from the reality of climate breakdown. Such images, she said, “can hold the same power” as photos of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, and smoke billowing from the twin towers. Writing on the climate science site Watts Up With That?, Eric Worrall said his first thought was “someone should check for fungus growing in the University of Exeter water supply”. But seriously, he continued, “imagine what a locked down medieval dystopia we would all endure if these killjoys were fully in charge”.
O’Neill’s paper of course assumes that climate breakdown is leading to hotter and more frequent heatwaves. “Not everyone is having fun during heatwaves superpowered by climate breakdown – for vulnerable people they can be deadly,” she says.
Let us consider some of these claims. In the U.K., the Met Office now calls three balmy days of 25°C on the Cornish Riviera a ‘heatwave’. Hot weather, a feature not unknown even as far north as 50 degrees, has been politicised. As for the weather being ‘superpowered’ by climate breakdown, it is of interest to note that the average temperature in the U.K. for the 2010s was colder than the 2000s. As we have seen in numerous Daily Sceptic articles, global warming started slowing down about two decades ago, with dips, pauses and standstills common across the planet. Of course, vulnerable people can die during hot spells, but far more suffer during cold weather. The Office for National Statistics recently estimated that over half a million fewer people died in England and Wales over the last 20 years due to the small rise in temperature. Over 90% of this was attributed to milder winters. Humans are sub-tropical creatures – we generally prefer it a little hotter than colder.
But O’Neill sees positive signs for the future. “Media outlets are increasingly working towards more responsible and accurate coverage of climate change – for example, there are far fewer occasions now where the journalistic norm of balanced reporting contributes to informationally biased coverage, unlike in the early 2000s when ‘balance as bias’ was far more prevalent.” In plain English, this translates as mainstream journalists are much tamer these days, having largely given up their pesky habit of asking questions and reporting all the facts.
Meanwhile, over at the Exeter Politics Department comes exciting news that computer models are being developed to track down “climate disbeliefs”. According to Associate Professor of Computational Social Science Travis Coan, among the heresies being collated are suggestions that climate moves in natural cycles, that the Sun plays a part in climate change, that carbon dioxide was much higher in the past, that CO2 starts to lose its warming effect beyond certain levels and that water vapour has a part to play in the weather.
Back in the real world, perhaps for those of us with a cleaner water supply, all these factors are considered by scientists trying to understand the climate. This includes scientists who are alarmed at rising levels of CO2.
Quite how the Exeter computer model will differentiate between scientific debate and ‘misinformation’ is unclear. Attempts are made to deduce “reasoning fallacies” – hence “the weather is cold somewhere on a certain day” may be factually correct, while “the weather is cold today, therefore global warming is not happening”, is not. You might wonder how the computer programme would deal with a recent news item from the BBC Climate Editor Justin Rowlatt, who noted that the odds of record India and Pakistan heatwaves were swelled by climate change. No doubt it would jump on the Met Office’s claim that climate change in these areas makes heatwaves “100 times more likely”. In the world of climate misinformation, individual days of hot weather show the climate is changing, individual days of cold do not. In fact, both suggestions are simply unscientific opinions.
Needless to say, fears of ‘conspiracy’ often surface when modern academics gather to shine the light on wrongthink. In 2009 there was a leak of a large number of emails written by leading IPCC writers from the University of East Anglia. Among the more damaging documents, in a scandal that was known as ‘Climategate’, was a message from Dr. Phil Jones, then head of the Climatic Research Unit, that stated: “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer review literature is.” At the time, an appalled George Monbiot of the Guardian wrote: “Pretending the climate email leak isn’t a crisis won’t make it go away.”
According to Coan, the contrarian preoccupation with conspiratorial narratives stands in contrast to media articles about climate change, where coverage of Climategate supposedly “dwindled within days”. Of course it didn’t really, as Monbiot correctly forecast. But years of subsequent whitewash inquiries, sympathetic and rewritten media accounts, messenger blaming, and even a film written by an Extinction Rebellion supporter for the BBC, have largely succeeded in erasing it from the public memory.
No conspiracy there, then.
Chris Morrison is the Daily Sceptic’s Environment Editor