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Jun 8, 2010

Where does alarmism come from?

We need to issue a correction. In last week's post titled "

We need to issue a correction. In last week’s post titled “Good news for Pacific islands becomes bad news for global warming”, I quoted Andrew Bolt who in turn quoted this statement from The Telegraph:

More than 75 million people living on Pacific islands will have to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change, Oxfam has warned.

In fact, this is what Oxfam said (my emphasis added):

People are already leaving their homes because of climate change, with projections that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated.

After Bolt quoted the same newspaper report in his column last Friday, the Herald-Sun published this letter to the editor from Oxfam:

Climate does pose a danger

ANDREW Bolt’s article, “Theories fall to take atoll” (June 4), quotes Oxfam as saying that “more than 75 million people living on Pacific islands will have to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change”. The number of people quoted refers to the Asia-Pacific region, not just the Pacific islands, and comes from Dr Norman Meyers, one of the world s foremost experts on environmental migration.

I apologise for repeating the inaccurate statement. I also think this serves as an interesting example of how reasonable statements get turned into alarmist misrepresentations as they spread, which I’ll say more about below.

The discussion on my original post turned to whether we have uncritically accepted exaggerated predictions about global warming. The focus of my original post wasn’t on testing the credibility of the “alarmist” quotes Bolt made use of – I only pointed out that the specific new research he used in his counter-claims didn’t get a clear representation, especially when it came to its caveats and limitations.

But the misrepresented Oxfam claim shows at least one way that apparent alarmism can come about. It starts with Oxfam producing a report [3.3MB PDF] that cited the sources of their claims, that was worded to recognise that these are probabilistic forecasts (things that may happen) rather than absolute predictions, and that recognised not every case of displacement would mean migration to another country:

By 2050, approximately 150 million people may be displaced because of climate change[3]. Seventy-five million of these are likely to be in the Asia-Pacific region, with that number growing to around 150 million[4] by 2100. Many people will resettle within their own country, and Pacific island governments are already tackling climate change related relocation and resettlement. But not all people forced to leave their homes will have the option of moving within their country.

[3] Myers, N. 1993. “Environmental refugees in a globally warmed world”. BioScience 43, pp 752–761.

[4] Nicholls, R.J. 1995. “Synthesis of vulnerability analysis studies”. In Preparing to Meet the Coastal Challenges of the 21st Century, vol. 1. Proceedings of the World Coast Conference, Noordwijk, 1–5 November, 1993, CSM-Centre Publication No. 4, Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water management, The Hague, The Netherlands, pp 181–216

Those key features remained in the Oxfam media release, although some detail was lost:

“People are already leaving their homes because of climate change, with projections that 75 million people in the Asia-Pacific region will be forced to relocate by 2050 if climate change continues unabated. Not all will have the option of relocating within their own country, so it’s vital that the Australian Government starts working with Pacific governments to plan for this now,” [Oxfam Australia Executive Director] Mr Hewett said.

The Telegraph‘s article actually included that direct quote from Andrew Hewett. Unfortunately, the quote was in the second-last paragraph, while their article opened with these headings:

Climate change to force 75 million Pacific Islanders from their homes
More than 75 million people living on Pacific islands will have to relocate by 2050 because of the effects of climate change, Oxfam has warned.

And that’s where the inaccuracies came in – “75 million Pacific Islanders” rather than 75 million in the Asia-Pacific region, and “will” rather than “may”.

From there, Bolt quoted the leading paragraph. Did he not read the rest of the article and miss the more accurate and cautious language in its body? Or did he read both and decide to go with the more sensational claim, which also happened to misrepresent what Oxfam had said? I don’t know, but the fact is that inaccuracy helped to bolster his claim that there have been overblown warnings from the green alarmists about rising sea levels, which made the value of the new research findings he (inaccurately) reported seem in greater contrast with the hype. And I didn’t pick him up on that first bit.

But once a misrepresentation like the Telegraph’s appears in an article, it’s easy to see how it can spread. Bolt quotes it; someone (e.g., yours truly) quotes Bolt; search engines index it; and on it goes. I’ve written previously about examples where the end of a chain of commentary about scientific reporting looks nothing like the claims in the scientific reports themselves. It doesn’t even require sinister intent, although it seems likely that some distortions will come via intentional selective and inaccurate representations. All it takes to start things is the careless choice of words, especially as the findings are condensed further and further to fit into media reports. And the key lesson, for me as much as anyone else, is that guarding against it takes time, effort, and the vigilance to read critically everything that is reported.

P.S. While looking over material for this post, I found my way back to something I wrote a couple of years ago about research on land loss in the Asia-Pacific region and how it is misused. My conclusion makes me think nothing much has changed:

So, there is Bolt’s detailed reporting of the new Bangladesh research. A finding that shows a small landmass growth unrelated to climate change gets turned into a rebuttal of the notion that rising sea levels could be a problem for a low-lying country. From this point, it can become another one of the “facts” that Bolt can state in any of his attack pieces on global warming, shopping bags, activist judges, or anything else where teh Left is a target. Leftists think we should respect human rights? These are the same Gore-worshipping bozos who said Bangladesh would sink into the sea.

And I’ll end by pointing readers to a much more concise comment on this point, courtesy of PhD Comics.

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64 comments

64 thoughts on “Where does alarmism come from?

  1. confessions

    I have no idea what Lee Kernaghan said about drought. You are missing my point which is that Flannery’s AoTY award has no bearing on the extent to which his public statements should be held to account. Unless you want to hold *all* AoTY recipients to the same standard.

  2. GavinM

    “Should we pillory Kernaghan for being alarmist about the likely extent of the drought?’

    Kernaghan won his AoTY for fund-raising over a 10 year period to help farming families who had actually been affected by drought, I’m not familiar with what Kernaghan actually said about drought though — did he predict that it would never rain again and therefore the land would never again be able to be farmed ? Because only something like that would put him on a par with Flannery’s predictions of cities running out of water.

  3. confessions

    Gavin: Lee Kernaghan won AoTY for his work with rural people. He used the award to tour around parts of rural Australia highlighting the plight of farmers – IIRC esp those drought-affected areas. A lot of those same areas have recently received decent rains and the farmers’ crop prospects are much better. Should we pillory Kernaghan for being alarmist about the likely extent of the drought?

    The reason Flannery cops it from Bolt is because he raises public awareness about global warming, which Bolt thinks isn’t happening. As for the information Flannery was basing his predictions on, some of that stuff I’ve posted up thread. I also think you’d have to go to the original source of Flannery’s remarks – I don’t necessarily trust what has been written about them in the newspapers.

  4. GavinM

    His AoTY is entirely relevant because he was awarded it for his promotion of AGW and its effects to the public.

    As to the money he’s made from and his financial interests in AGW, he has written books on the subject, he is an investor in a Geothermal plant in Innamincka, he is a spokesperson for Green Loans (Field Force), he is an investor in some new solar powered plough, he heads a panel that is funded by and advises the government on AGW, he tours both nationally and internationally speaking about AGW, he headed our delegation to Copenhagen — so yes, I’d say he’s definitely made money from and has got vested interests in AGW. (I’m sure a Google search would turn up more if I had the time).

    Your point about AB not providing context is valid, which is why I’d like to see the information from the time that Flannery based his predictions on — I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it was more than just because we happened to be in a drought at the time, after all, Australia has had droughts throughout its history.

  5. confessions

    Actually, I have no idea how much money Flannery has made, or what his “financial investments in the AGW mitigation industry” are, and I don’t think his being AoTY is relevent – all AoTYs use their award to bring public attention to their particular interest, Flannery is no different.

    My point is that Bolt *never* provides any of the context present at the time Flannery made his predictions. Never. We only ever hear the outcome. And 6 years after fact is disingenuous if you weren’t there at the time questionning. Actually I rather suspect Bolt never gives the context because it would detract from the validity of his criticisms of Flannery.

  6. GavinM

    Hello confessions,

    “Gavin: We certainly should hold researchers to a higher standard. At the time. Moseying along 4 and 6 years later and singling out the outcome without giving the context that applied at the time isn’t holding someone to account, it’s taking the piss.”

    Yes and no — in Flannery’s case, he has made a considerable amount of money and has been given an Australian of the Year award on the back of his spruiking the AGW message, and he also has financial investments in the AGW mitigation industry, therefore I think given the financial gain and publicity he has received through his predictions of the disasters that were to befall us as a result of AGW and the timeframes in which they were to occur, it’s fair enough for someone to come along at the expiry of those timeframes and highlight the failure of those predictions and to question the credibility of the person making them.

    I agree though that it would be useful to be able to see all of the data on which Flannery was basing those predictions.

  7. Matthew of Canberra

    mondo rock @52

    I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. If I see a pro-AGW claim that strikes me as bogus, I’ll obviously think “that’s bogus”, but I’m not going to go online and post to blog sites about it.

    “This is the exact behaviour that I’ve been trying to highlight Matthew – the very thing that has lead to the current crisis in credibility faced by the pro-AGW advocates.”

    Hmm. I think you’re missing an important point – I’m not a pro-AGW advocate. I’m not arguing any position in relation to the science. I have an opinion, but I don’t kid myself that it’s particularly informed (certainly no more than most), and I’m not even telling anyone what it is.

    “You openly admit that you’ll only pull one side up on their bogus claims while giving the other a free pass, thereby allowing all claims made by “warmists” to enter the public discourse without scrutiny.”

    Woah – without scrutiny? Nobody is scrutinising the warmist claims? I get the impression that warmist claims are scrutinised pretty effectively these days.

    “It doesn’t take a genius to see how this approach actively undermines the credibility of the “pro-AGW” argument”

    No, I don’t think so. As I keep saying, I’m not scrutinising any scientific claims from EITHER side. I’m not debunking factual warmist claims, and I’m not debunking factual denialist claims. I’m only interested in debunking the tertiary commentators who’ve taken a particular political position and then claim to justify it by cherry-picking secondary claims. Nothing I say affects the actual facts of the case any more than what AB or (lord) CM say. My difference is that I’m not claiming to address the science, I’m just going to look at the way people like those guys use secondary sources and point out when they’ve stuffed it up, if I get around to it.

    And lets not confine this to AGW. For example, I actually tend to agree with AB about at least 1/2 of the problem in the gaza blockade. I agree that hamas are a bunch of creeps, that life in gaza is probably not as bad as it’s painted, that egypt is also culpable in any developing humanitarian situation and that israel has an obligation (if only to itself) to control its borders. But that doesn’t mean I’m not happy to point out when an article he references to support a claim is downright misleading, or to point out when his claims about media bias are unfounded, or if I think he knows less about the situation than he thinks he does. Like I said – it’s a hobby. I don’t even take it personally. Sadly, I think he does.

    “particularly once the more sensationalist of those claims start turning out to be false.”

    Sure. But the more sensationalist claims about ANY significant prediction tend to turn out to be false. Take your pick, from economics, national security, terrorism, crime, social trends, mining tax changes – there will always be sensationalist (and overly optimistic) claims, and the extremes will usually turn out to be false. AGW is no different, and the claims of worldwide economic destruction likely to be caused by cutting emissions are also no different.

    “But don’t let that detract from the fact that I admire your honesty here Matthew. You’re the only one owning up to a process that is quite clearly shared by most other posters here.”

    Actually, it’s the process shared by most people, probably including you. But like you say – I’m happy to be honest about it. The moment I decide that it’s my job to actually argue the facts of the matter you’ll see me become much more even-handed. In the meantime I have no authority anyway.

  8. confessions

    Gavin: We certainly should hold researchers to a higher standard. At the time. Moseying along 4 and 6 years later and singling out the outcome without giving the context that applied at the time isn’t holding someone to account, it’s taking the piss.

    Mondo:

    [He’s actually trying to set the standard for describing someone as an ‘alarmist’ ]

    Really? Sounds more like ‘One-rule-for-me-another-for-people-I-don’t-like’.

    Bolt has differentiated himself with other journos and opinion writers on national TV as someone who “follows the evidence of climate science”, as if this in some way qualifies him as an expert – he certainly tried to position himself as such at the time. In which case, if he’s going to continually drag up Flannery’s comments, then he ought to be fair game as well for all the anti-AGW hysteria he’s sprayed around.

  9. confessions

    Actually, speaking of alarmism, there’s been a flurry of noise in the media about bowel cancer of late. Adverts on TV, news items, and something on Red Kerry. An expert interviewed said everyone, that’s *everyone* should have a colonoscopy every 5 years once they hit 40. Alarmism? Not everyone gets bowel cancer, so is it good use of resources with an ageing population to send everyone off for screening, not to mention frighten the +40s? Where’s the outrage on alarmist health warnings, or is it just climate-type warnings that are to be seized on?

  10. mondo rock

    So now that he’s set the standard by which people can be hounded for their predictions

    He’s actually trying to set the standard for describing someone as an ‘alarmist’ confessions. I’m not sure why you have so much trouble accurately describing the arguments of those who disagree with you.

    Having said that Bolt has failed to make his case since he hasn’t really established that it was unreasonable for Flannery to make the predictions he did. More reference to the prevailing science at the time would be required before the ‘alarmist’ tag could legitimately be applied.

  11. GavinM

    You make a good point confessions — although I suppose some may say that a scientist – (albeit in this case not one in the field of climate) – should perhaps be held more accountable for their predictions than an opinion columnist, after all one is paid to make findings and predictions which can affect the whole community based on research and evidence, whereas the other is paid to merely voice their thoughts on any given subject.

  12. confessions

    Thanks Gavin.

    Flannery made his comments in 2004 – earlier than I’d thought. Bolt’s column is 4 years after the fact, and his MTR interview 6 years.

    So now that he’s set the standard by which people can be hounded for their predictions, can we expect to see Bolt hectored on Insiders about his falied Costellology of 2007 – 2009? Should we demand he present himself to Robyn Williams for a probing interview about all his false “world hasn’t warmed since [insert convenient date here]” rhetoric?

    Why is someone so consistently wrong given such a public platform?

  13. mondo rock

    I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. If I see a pro-AGW claim that strikes me as bogus, I’ll obviously think “that’s bogus”, but I’m not going to go online and post to blog sites about it.

    This is the exact behaviour that I’ve been trying to highlight Matthew – the very thing that has lead to the current crisis in credibility faced by the pro-AGW advocates.

    You openly admit that you’ll only pull one side up on their bogus claims while giving the other a free pass, thereby allowing all claims made by “warmists” to enter the public discourse without scrutiny. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this approach actively undermines the credibility of the “pro-AGW” argument, particularly once the more sensationalist of those claims start turning out to be false.

    But don’t let that detract from the fact that I admire your honesty here Matthew. You’re the only one owning up to a process that is quite clearly shared by most other posters here.

  14. GavinM

    Hello confessions,

    AB has been banging on about Flannery and his global warming predictions for quite a long time now, although I’m not sure exactly how long — I did a bit of a google search and found these from 2008:

    http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/column_the_10_worst_warming_predictions/

    http://blogs.news.com.au/heraldsun/andrewbolt/index.php/heraldsun/comments/flannery_washed_out_again/