The Scientists Are The Bad Guys
On March 8, Channel 4 screened The Great Global Warming Swindle, a documentary that branded as a lie the scientific consensus that man-made greenhouse gasses are primarily responsible for climate change.
The film was advertised extensively on Channel 4 and repeatedly previewed and reviewed in newspapers. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Christopher Booker declared:
“Only very rarely can a TV documentary be seen as a pivotal moment in a major political debate, but such was Channel 4’s The Great Global Warming Swindle last Thursday. Never before has there been such a devastatingly authoritative account of how the hysteria over global warming has parted company with reality.” (Booker, ‘A turning point in climate change,’ Sunday Telegraph, March 11, 2007)
Peter Hitchens commented in the Daily Mail:
“If you were worried about those snaps of polar bears clinging to melting ice-floes, sentenced to a slow death by global warming, you may now relax. They’ll be fine. Channel 4 has paid in full for its recent misdemeanours by screening, last Thursday, the brilliant, devastating film The Great Global Warming Swindle.” (Hitchens, ‘Drugs?’, Daily Mail, March 11, 2007)
Doubtless like many who saw the film, the Financial Times’ reviewer was left bewildered:
“Not so long ago, the venerable David Attenborough on the Beeb was telling us that human-driven global warming was real and was coming for us. So that was settled. Now Channel 4, like a dissident schoolboy, is scoffing at the old boy’s hobbyhorse and I don’t know what to believe.” (’Slaughterhouse three,’ Financial Times, March 10, 2007)
The film opened with scenes of wild weather and environmental disaster accompanied by dramatic captions:
“THE ICE IS MELTING. THE SEA IS RISING. HURRICANES ARE BLOWING. AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT.
“SCARED? DON’T BE. IT’S NOT TRUE.”
This was immediately followed by a series of equally forthright talking heads:
“We can’t say that CO2 will drive climate; it certainly never did in the past.”
“We imagine that we live in an age of reason. And the global warming alarm is dressed up as science. But it’s not science; it’s propaganda.”
“We’re just being told lies; that’s what it comes down to.”
The commentary added to the sense of outrage: “You are being told lies.”
This was indeed superficially impressive – when several experts make bold statements on the same theme we naturally assume they must be onto something – but alarm bells should already have been ringing. This, after all, was ostensibly a film about science – about evidence, arguments, research and debate. Why, then, the language of polemic and smear?
The remarkable answer is provided by the film’s writer and director, Martin Durkin:
“I think it [the film] will go down in history as the first chapter in a new era of the relationship between scientists and society. Legitimate scientists – people with qualifications – are the bad guys. It is a big story that is going to cause controversy.
“It’s very rare that a film changes history, but I think this is a turning point and in five years the idea that the greenhouse effect is the main reason behind global warming will be seen as total bollocks.” (‘“Global Warming Is Lies” Claims Documentary,’ Life Style Extra, March 4, 2007; www.lse.co.uk/ShowStory.asp?story=CZ434669 U&news_headline=global_warming _is_lies_ claims_documentary)
Compare and contrast this with the aim as described in a letter sent by the makers of the film, Wag TV, to Professor Carl Wunsch, a leading expert on ocean circulation and climate who subsequently appeared in the film:
“The aim of the film is to examine critically the notion that recent global warming is primarily caused by industrial emissions of CO2. It explores the scientific evidence which jars with this hypothesis and explores alternative theories such as solar induced climate change. Given the seemingly inconclusive nature of the evidence, it examines the background to the apparent consensus on this issue, and highlights the dangers involved, especially to developing nations, of policies aimed at limiting industrial growth.” (http://ocean.mit.edu/~cwunsch/ papersonline/channel4response)
“I am angry because they completely misrepresented me. My views were distorted by the context in which they placed them. I was misled as to what it was going to be about. I was told about six months ago that this was to be a programme about how complicated it is to understand what is going on. If they had told me even the title of the programme, I would have absolutely refused to be on it. I am the one who has been swindled.” (Geoffrey Lean, ‘Climate change: An inconvenient truth… for C4,’ The Independent, March 11, 2007; http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/ climate_change/article2347526.ece)
We will hear more from Wunsch in what follows.
The film presented viewers with an apparently devastating refutation of the “theory of global warming”. And these were not picky, esoteric criticisms. Durkin insisted that the world’s climate scientists are guilty of the most fundamental error imaginable: increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the cause of higher temperature, as the experts claim. Quite the reverse: increasing atmospheric CO2 is itself the result of rising temperature.
As evidence for this contention, Durkin argued that global surface temperature dropped dramatically between 1945-1975, at a time when CO2 emissions were rapidly rising as a result of the postwar economic boom. According to Durkin, if CO2 emissions were responsible for increasing temperature, then temperature should not have fallen between 1945-1975. Clearly, then, some factor other than CO2 emissions must have caused the subsequent global temperature rise.
But Real Climate, an internet site run by climate scientists, such as NASA’s Dr Gavin Schmidt and Dr William Connelley of the British Antarctic Survey, describes Durkin’s discussion of the 1945-75 period as “deeply deceptive”. (Real Climate, March 9, 2007; www.realclimate.org/index.php/ archives/2007/03/swindled)
In this section of the film, Durkin focused heavily on a graph depicting temperature changes. The graph, Real Climate comments, “looks rather odd and may have been carefully selected”. It appears to show a dramatic cooling between the 1940s and 1970s. But try flipping between the film’s version of the global temperature record (shown above left) and the temperature plot that normally appears in the scientific literature (shown above right) The supposed cooling looks rather less evident in this second graph.
Without knowing more details of how Durkin may have manipulated the data plotted in his graph, it is difficult to comment on the presentation. What we can say is that Durkin’s “four decades of cooling”, implying a relentless temperature drop over 40 years, is not an accurate description of the trend over this period. There was some cooling for +part+ of this time but also some plateauing, with fluctuations up and down.
But why did the temperature not simply rise in line with the post-war increase in greenhouse gas emissions?
In fact, as is well-known, the absence of a global rise in temperature between 1945-75 is explained by the release of large amounts of industrial pollutants, called sulphate aerosols, into the atmosphere. These particles have a braking effect on global warming, known as “global dimming”. By shielding some of the incoming solar energy, sulphate aerosols mask the underlying warming effect generated by rising levels of CO2. By the 1980s, however, stronger warming had exceeded this masking effect and global temperature has since continued to rise. As Real Climate notes, by failing to explain the science behind this phenomenon the programme makers were guilty of “lying to us by omission.”
The Ice Cores
The film repeatedly gave the impression that mainstream science argues that CO2 is the sole driver of rising temperatures in the Earth’s climate system. But this is not the case. Climate scientists are well aware that solar activity plays a role, though a minor one at present, as do long-term periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit, known as Milankovitch cycles. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Milankovitch_cycles)
The point is that there is a vast body of evidence that very strongly supports the hypothesis that greenhouse gas emissions, of which CO2 is the most important, are primarily responsible for recent global warming. The 4th and most recent scientific assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes:
“Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely [.i.e. probability greater than 90%] due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.” (‘Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis,’ Summary for Policymakers, IPCC, February 2007, page 10; www.ipcc.ch/SPM2feb07.pdf)
We then come to one of the film’s most misleading arguments. Antarctic ice cores show that rises in levels of CO2 have lagged 800 years behind temperature rises at specific times in the geological past. This, argued Durkin, +proves+ that CO2 cannot be responsible for global warming – instead global warming is responsible for increasing levels of CO2. But this was a huge howler.
What Durkin’s film failed to explain was that the 800-year lag happened at the end of ice ages which occur about every 100,000 years. (See: www.realclimate.org/index.php/ archives/2004/12/co2-in-ice-cores)
Scientists believe that the end of an ice age is likely triggered when the amount of heat reaching the Earth rises as a result of a periodic change in the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Jeff Severinghaus, Professor of Geosciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, explains why the rise in CO2 initially lags behind the temperature rise:
“The reason has to do with the fact that the warmings take about 5000 years to be complete. The lag is only 800 years. All that the lag shows is that CO2 did not cause the first 800 years of warming, out of the 5000 year trend.” (Real Climate, ‘What does the lag of CO2 behind temperature in ice cores tell us about global warming?’, December 3, 2005; www.realclimate.org/index.php /archives/2004/12/co2-in-ice-cores/)
The best current explanation for the lag of 800 years is that this is how long it takes for CO2, absorbed by the ocean in an earlier warm period, to be “flushed out” at the end of an ice age. Once that CO2 has been released into the atmosphere its heat-trapping properties as a greenhouse gas lead to even stronger warming: an example of positive feedback. (See Caillon et al., ‘Timing of Atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic Temperature Changes Across Termination III,’ Science, 14 March 2003: Vol. 299. no. 5613, pp. 1728 – 1731)
Professor Severinghaus summarises:
“In other words, CO2 does not initiate the warmings, but acts as an amplifier once they are underway.”
Durkin’s analysis, then, was way off the mark.
The film’s claim that solar activity might account for recent warming is also without credibility. In September 2006, the Times reported the latest findings from researchers writing in the top journal, Nature:
“Scientists have examined various proxies of solar energy output over the past 1,000 years and have found no evidence that they are correlated with today’s rising temperatures. Satellite observations over the past 30 years have also turned up nothing. ‘The solar contribution to warming… is negligible,’ the researchers wrote in the journal Nature.” (Anjana Ahuja, ‘It’s hot, but don’t blame the Sun,’ The Times, September 25, 2006)
The film’s other scientific claims can be similarly dismissed. Carl Wunsch – who, as discussed, appeared in the film – comments:
“What we now have is an out-and-out propaganda piece, in which there is not even a gesture toward balance or explanation of why many of the extended inferences drawn in the film are not widely accepted by the scientific community. There are so many examples, it’s hard to know where to begin, so I will cite only one: a speaker asserts, as is true, that carbon dioxide is only a small fraction of the atmospheric mass. The viewer is left to infer that means it couldn’t really matter. But even a beginning meteorology student could tell you that the relative masses of gases are irrelevant to their effects on radiative balance. A director not intending to produce pure propaganda would have tried to eliminate that piece of disinformation.” (http://ocean.mit.edu/~cwunsch/ papersonline/channel4response)
For further help in understanding the weakness of the film’s claims, see the following resources:
Real Climate, ‘Swindled’,
Campaign Against Climate Change, including a rebuttal to the film by Sir John Houghton, who chairs the Scientific Assessment Working Group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: http://portal.campaigncc.org/node/1820
Royal Society: Facts and fictions about climate change:
“I Was Duped” – Déjà Vu?
Many readers will be aware that Durkin has previous ‘form’. In 1997, Channel 4 broadcast his three-part series, Against Nature, which suggested present-day environmentalists were the true heirs of the Nazis. (See George Monbiot, ‘The Revolution Has Been Televised,’ The Guardian, December 18, 1997; www.monbiot.com/archives/1997/ 12/18/the-revolution-has-been-televised/)
Several interviewees who appeared in the film felt they had been misled about the programme-maker’s agenda. Responding to complaints, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) found that the editing of interviews with four contributors had “distorted or misrepresented their known views”. (Geoffrey Lean, ‘Climate change: An inconvenient truth… for C4,’ The Independent, March 11, 2007; http://news.independent.co.uk/ environment/climate_change/article2347526.ece)
In addition, the ITC found: “The interviewees had also been misled as to the content and purpose of the programmes when they agreed to take part.” (Paul McCann, ‘Channel 4 told to apologise to Greens,’ The Independent, April 2, 1998)
Ten years on, it appears that history may have repeated itself. In his letter of complaint to the film-makers cited above, Carl Wunsch writes:
“I have some experience in dealing with TV and print reporters and do understand something of the ways in which one can be misquoted, quoted out of context, or otherwise misinterpreted. Some of that is inevitable in the press of time or space or in discussions of complicated issues. Never before, however, have I had an experience like this one. My appearance in the ‘Global Warming Swindle’ is deeply embarrassing, and my professional reputation has been damaged. I was duped—an uncomfortable position in which to be.
“At a minimum, I ask that the film should never be seen again publicly with my participation included. Channel 4 surely owes an apology to its viewers, and perhaps WAGTV owes something to Channel 4. I will be taking advice as to whether I should proceed to make some more formal protest.” (http://ocean.mit.edu/~cwunsch/ papersonline/channel4response)
Eight of the scientists in the film – John Christy, Paul Reiter, Richard Lindzen, Paul Driessen, Roy Spencer, Patrick Michaels, Fred Singer and Tim Ball – are linked to American neo-conservative and right-wing think-tanks, many of which have received tens of millions of dollars from Exxon.
Greenpeace provides a fascinating online ’map’ detailing how Exxon funds these climate sceptics. Go to: http://www.exxonsecrets.org/ index.php?mapid=831 (click ‘Launch’ then click ‘skip intro’)
In his book, Green Backlash, environmental journalist Andrew Rowell noted that Fred Singer has also attacked scientific and environmental stances on other green issues such as ozone, acid rain, automobile emissions and even whaling. Singer has worked for companies such as Exxon, Shell, Arco, Unocal and Sun.
According to the Environmental Research Foundation, a non-governmental organisation:
“For years, Singer was a professor at the University of Virginia where he was funded by energy companies to pump out glossy pamphlets pooh-poohing climate change.” (Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.94)
Rowell wrote that a quarter of Patrick Michaels’ research funding was reportedly received from companies such as Edison Electric Institute, the largest utility trade association in America. Michaels’ magazine, World Climate Review, was funded by the Western Fuel Association and a video produced by him was funded by coal companies and distributed by the Denver Coal Club. (Rowell, Green Backlash, Routledge, 1996, p.143)
Both Singer and Michaels represented the fossil fuel lobby’s Global Climate Coalition and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a leader in global warming scepticism.
Journalist Ross Gelbspan noted that in May 1995, Richard Lindzen and Patrick Michaels were hired as expert witnesses to testify on behalf of Western Fuels Association, a $400 million consortium of coal suppliers and coal-fired utilities. Gelbspan said of Lindzen:
“I don’t know very many supporters of Mr Lindzen who are not in the pay of the fossil fuel lobby. Dr Lindzen himself, his research is publicly funded, but Dr Lindzen makes, as he told me, $2,500 a day consulting with fossil fuel interests, and that includes his consulting with OPEC, his consulting with the Australian coal industry, his consulting with the US coal industry and so forth. That’s not to say Dr Lindzen doesn’t believe what he says, but it is to say that he stands in very sharp distinction to really just about virtually all of the climate scientists around the world.” (Tony Jones, ‘Journalist puts global warming sceptics under the spotlight,’ Australian Broadcasting Corporation, March 7, 2005; www.abc.net.au/lateline/ content/2005/s1318067.htm)
Journalist George Monbiot wrote of Philip Stott:
“Professor Stott is a retired biogeographer. Like almost all the prominent sceptics he has never published a peer-reviewed paper on climate change. But he has made himself available to dismiss climatologists’ peer-reviewed work as the ‘lies’ of ecofundamentalists.” (Monbiot, ‘Beware the fossil fools,’ The Guardian, April 27, 2004; http://environment.guardian.co.uk/ climatechange/story/0,,1829315,00.html)
Paul Driessen is a fellow at two right-wing think tanks in the US, which are part of the Wise Use movement. One of the think tanks is headed by Ron Arnold, who has spent the last twenty years attacking the environmental movement. His fellow director is a fundraiser for America’s gun lobby. The list goes on…
By contrast, Greenpeace spokeswoman Mhairi Dunlop said her organisation had been interviewed by Durkin but none of the material had been included in the film:
“They interviewed us but I guess what we said didn’t fit in with the [story] they were peddling.” (McCandless, op. cit)
Following the film’s broadcast, Professor Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society – the government-sponsored academy of sciences for the United Kingdom – has said that many factors contribute to global warming but it is clear that emissions of “greenhouse gases,” particularly CO2, are to blame for most of the current temperature rise. Rees added:
“Those who promote fringe scientific views but ignore the weight of evidence are playing a dangerous game. They run the risk of diverting attention from what we can do to ensure the world’s population has the best possible future.” (Ibid)
On March 11 the Observer published a letter from a group of climate scientists responding to Durkin’s film:
“This programme misrepresented the state of scientific knowledge on global warming, claiming climate scientists are presenting lies. This is an outrageous statement…
“We defend the right of people to be sceptical, but for C4 to imply that the thousands of scientists and published peer-reviewed papers, summarised in the recent international science assessment, are misguided or lying lacks scientific credibility and simply beggars belief.” (Alan Thorpe, Natural Environment Research Council, Brian Hoskins, University of Reading, Jo Haigh, Imperial College London, Myles Allen, University of Oxford, Peter Cox, University of Exeter, Colin Prentice, QUEST Programme, letter to the Observer, Sunday March 11, 2007;
Viewed from one perspective, Channel 4 has done a huge public disservice in spreading absurd and mendacious arguments guaranteed to generate confusion. This at a time when a fragile momentum is building on the need to take urgent action on the very real threat of catastrophic climate change.
But from another perspective it may well be that this film does for climate scepticism what Tony Blair’s “dodgy dossiers” did for the pro-war movement ahead of the invasion of Iraq. Wildly distorted propaganda often does have a powerful initial impact. But stretched beyond a certain point of unreality, it also has a tendency to turn on, and bite, the propagandists.
Durkin’s grandiose prediction that his film “will go down in history” will surely prove correct, although perhaps not for the reasons he imagined.
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