AGW – Astroturfing global warming

An island in the Maldives fringed by coral.

Coral islands - another proof of climate change

Two stories on climate change today. Both are fairly depressing, though one at least carries a silver lining. The Times reports on Nasa findings that the year 2009-10 was the hottest on record, while The Daily Mail and The Independent both carry articles about a recent discovery that because coral growth is improved by higher sea levels, islands perched around coral reefs have grown, counteracting the effect of the sea level rise; though given the sustained bleaching and die-off of reefs around the world, it’s difficult to say how long this can go on for.

Still, one article of bad news, one of tentative good news, with one thing in common. They both put forward fairly strong proof that climate change is happening. Not that you’d know this from the comments.

The Times‘s article carries 12 comments. Of those, all but one appear to be endorsing “sceptical” or denialist positions. Particularly popular is to blame the fact that it’s the warmest year on record on El Niño:

Articles like this just do not deserve publication. Not one mention of El Nino. Fortunately we have access to the internet and a wealth of information we never had 20 years ago. Enough people are now more knowledgable about climate than ever before, so it’s quite easy to see through the propangda being pushed in the main stream media on this very important topic. When the temperatures do dip, which they will, I’m sure this paper will mention la Nina….

People haven’t forgotten that europe and north america have just had their worst winter for 30 years.
The fact that el nino has warmed up the southern hemisphere in the first 3 months, doesn’t undermine the sceptics position at all. Au contraire – please explain how the SH hasn’t warmed at all during the last 30 years, can suddenly and all alone be responsible for warming.

I notice no mention of the El Nino pacific warming cycle that started last year and is just about finishing, this is what led the Met office and others to predict the global warmth over the last 12 months – though the Met also predicted it would be a warm year in the UK, which seems another bit of a failed gamble by them ;)
The last global temperature spike occured in 1998 which also coincided with an El Nino year, and headlines then also failed to hilight the El Nino but rather talked upped the temperatures. Then the temperatures thereafter quickly fell back. How are we compared to that year?
Indeed a La Nina -the opposite pacific cycle- could see some global cooling later this year will we hear about that in the same terms?

It is also worth remembering that the El nino effect is fast disappearing and La nina will depress the SSTs.
No panic.

The past year has also covered an El Nino event, but the cooler La Nina is on its way!

The fact is that El Niño, being a periodic weather event, shouldn’t make this year any hotter than any other El Niño year (a cycle that occurs every 3-5 years). True, 1998 and 2005 were both hot El Niño years, but 2009 was hotter, and there is a constant trend towards hotter and hotter El Niño cycles. Now, I’m not going to fault the commenters for not searching out the report (even though several of them are acting as if they’ve read it from cover to cover), but if they had, they’d have seen on the very first page, in the very first paragraph, they’d have seen this:

We conclude that global temperature continued to rise rapidly in the past decade, despite large year-to-year fluctuations associated with the El Nino-La Nina cycle of tropical ocean temperature.

The old canard about the solar cycle warming the planet gets dragged up too, even though, according to the report “The new record temperature in 2010 is particularly meaningful because it occurs when the recent minimum of solar irradiance is having its maximum cooling effect” (p. 29).

Perhaps the fault lies with the journalist, rather than the readers for not mentioning these important details – the Nasa report is a 10 year survey, and only mentions the fact that 2009-10 was the hottest year on record as an afterthought. Can the readers be blamed for reacting to article that’s been deliberately sensationalised? But odder is the fact that out of the 12 people who commented on that article, 5 of them knew about the details of the El Niño cycle – not exactly common knowledge.

If we go back to the last article The Times published on climate change – “Night-time temperatures could rise above 25C because of climate change” – we see something interesting. Several of the people who commented on that article – 5 by my count – commented on the other article too, and their denialist comments tend to rocket up the recommendation board.

Exactly the same thing is happening on The Daily Mail‘s boards. Though the best rated comment is a sensible one about the Chagos Islanders, every other comment with a rating of greater than +20 is a sceptical or denialist one. Once you get past the bulk of blindly upvoted comments, you reach an island of fairly sensible comments about tsunami risk, reclaimed land and so on. And once you pass the 0 point and dip into negative numbers, to the comments that have been rejected by the majority of readers, only then do you find any comments suggesting anthropogenic climate change is happening.

Denialism is on the rise in the UK – though not as much as it is in the United States – but even so, at the last survey, 26% of the population said climate change was definitely man-made, and 38% said that although the cause was unproven, warming is happening. Only 25% did not believe warming was occuring. On The Times‘s comments, 10 out 12 of the comments deny flat-out that warming is happening, with 1 claiming warming is happening, but due to the solar cycle, and one comment which doesn’t make a statement directly, but does attack a denialist’s methodology. That’s an 83% denial rate which, even given the ridiculously small sample size, appears significant.

I’ve seen this behaviour before. Whenever an article about immigration appears on The Guardian‘s website, or the BBC hosts a debate about benefits or employment, BNP and EDL forums send their users out in droves to “astroturf” the comments, and make it appear that the BNP has a majority base of support, setting up a kind of twisted echo chamber that bulks up the confidence of less certain members. Given the ties between the far-right and climate change denialism – the BNP manifesto declares “The BNP rejects the “climate change” theory which holds that all western nations need to be stripped of their manufacturing base and pay untold billions to the Third World to build up their industries” and using the usual anti-semitic codewords about “the ruling elite”, pushes conspiracy theories surrounding the de-industrialisation of Britain – it’s not at all hard to see how a dedicated, influential group of media savvy far-right activists can divert the conversation and make themselves out to be a “silent majority”.*

And this, ultimately, is why public uncertainty is on the rise, despite the massive bulk of scientific evidence behind anthropogenic climate change. Look at this chart – the grey circle represents the number of scientists who have claimed climate change is not happening or is not man-made. And they’d have you believe they were the majority.

* This would partially explain why The Independent (admittedly more left-leaning and lower traffic than The Times or The Daily Mail) hasn’t been hit by the same trolling – they have no recommendation button, and their comments system allows replies, leading to a more rational debate. You can’t just throw up your comments, have your friends click the “recommend” button a few times, and then overwhelm the thread.


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  1. #1 by ukenagashi on Friday, 4th June 2010 - 18:15 UTC

    I’m mostly commenting because I had to translate a thing about coral bleaching, and it’s the most depressing thing. And I was like “oh I know that one I know that one!” To be honest, the shit that’s going down in the sea – not the rising levels, but what’s happening *in* there – is the stuff I tend to hear less about, and the stuff that frightens me the most. Thanks a lot, Environmentalism in Japan.

    Also, as a science-failing pleb who knows basically nothing, thank you.

  2. #2 by Mark S on Friday, 4th June 2010 - 18:21 UTC

    25% don’t believe warming is happening at all?! That’s the kind of statistic that really bothers me :S

    Really enjoying your posts so far though!

    • #3 by atomicspin on Friday, 4th June 2010 - 18:52 UTC

      Yeah. I’m hoping a lot of that is just plain contrarianism. 10-15% of the population will claim to believe anything that goes against common opinion – the 28% of American Republicans who believe the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is a good thing spring to mind. I hope, especially since that survey was carried out during one of the cold winters in many years, that that’s all it was.

  3. #4 by wickedday on Friday, 4th June 2010 - 22:10 UTC

    Contrarianism, and the sort of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that some people are bizarrely proud of – contrarianism as specifically applied to science.

    I’m reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science as we speak (had some book tokens to use up) and a lot of the points he makes about science being routinely treated as some sort of bogeyman by “humanities graduates” who count science-illiteracy as a plus point ring uncomfortably true. God knows English Lit has its fair share of woo-evangelists.

    The astroturfing on the Guardian can get pretty bad, but the regular commentariat tend to be good at shooting it down.

    Good post. Depressing, though.

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