A few weeks ago the nightly hour-long documentary series on CBC Radio, “Ideas,” allowed Canadian climate change pseudoskeptic Larry Solomon an entire hour to make his case against the science of anthropogenic global warming. The producers offered not a single challenge to any of Solomon’s arguments, despite the fact that practically every point he made on the science of the subject was either false or grossly misrepresented the science.
Solomon is a “respected” enviromentalist. But he has decided climate change isn’t as big a threat as just about the entire climatology community fears it to be. He doesn’t believe there is a solid consensus that the humans are responsible for most of the observed changed. He doesn’t buy lines like this one from the current edition of Nature: “Anthropogenic climate change is now beyond dispute.”
All of which is indeed is worthy of attention from journalists.
Someone who has a high profile in the Canadian environmental community
is dissenting from the consensus. But that wasn’t the focus for the
Ideas producers, who chose instead to let Solomon make a long list of
statements that could easily have been checked against publicly
available scientific documents.
A friend of mine, Stephen Ban, who is studying the effects of climate change on coral reefs for his PhD at James Cook University in Australia, found the time to go through the program and supply scientific rebuttals to each of Solomon’s points that there is “an enormous amount of contrary evidence.”
Here are some examples of what he found and communicated to the CBC:
Solomon: “Antarctica is the main source of potential water. There actually isn’t that much ice that could melt in the Arctic.”
Reality: Ridiculous. Melting of the Greenland ice sheet alone would produce 7.2 meters of sea level rise. (http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/corporate/pressoffice/adcc/BookCh4Jan2006.pdf)
Solomon: “There’s only one way to measure whether the ice in Antarctica is increasing or decreasing, and that’s through satellite measurements”
Reality: This is false. The International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE) collects ice cores from across Antarctica. A paper published in the journal Science on August 11, 2006 detailed changes in snowfall over the past 50 years. An article in Geophysical Research Letters (August 30, 2006) describes a statistical reconstruction of 200 years of Antarctic temperature change from these cores.
Solomon: “What he [Wegman] found was that Mann did not have the academic background in statistics to do the type of modeling he was required to do. He found that Mann’s colleagues didn’t have that background . . . the model that they produced had no statistical validity”
Reality: [the subject is the famous “hockey stick”]: The results of Mann et al have been upheld by other studies (see Rutherford et al, 2004. Proxy-based Northern Hemisphere Surface Temperature Reconstructions: Sensitivity to Method, Predictor Network, Target Season, and Target Domain. Journal of Climate, 18(13)2309-2329). Further support of the results can be found in: Jones, P.D., Mann, M.E., Climate Over Past Millennia, Reviews of Geophysics, 42, RG2002, doi: 10.1029/2003RG000143, 2004; Mann, M.E., Ammann, C.M., Bradley, R.S., Briffa, K.R., Crowley, T.J., Hughes, M.K., Jones, P.D., Oppenheimer, M., Osborn, T.J., Overpeck, J.T., Rutherford, S., Trenberth, K.E., Wigley, T.M.L., On Past Temperatures and Anomalous Late 20th Century Warmth ,Eos, 84, 256-258, 2003; Jones, P.D., T.J. Osborn, and K.R. Briffa, The evolution of climate over the last millennium, Science, 292, 662-667, 2001.
The “hockey stick”? It’s been verified a dozen different ways by independent researchers and the National Academy of Sciences. For Solomon to be claiming it’s evidence against anthropogenic global warming suggests he simply isn’t paying attention to the science.
And that’s just a few of the errors from the first 16 minutes. I came across another whopper towards the end, when Solomon claims that CO2 used to be consider a “gas of life” and was only recently demoted to a danger. This despite the fact that the idea that CO2 is a greenhouse gas was nailed down 150 years ago.
It goes on and on. Solomon’s views are documented his new book, The Deniers, which draws on the usual list of non-experts and scientists who have lost the respect of their peers because they have misconstrued and misunderstood the science of climatology, including David Bellamy, Freeman Dyson, Zbigniew Jaworowski, Richard Lindzen, and so on.
I tried to ask the program’s interviewer, David Cayley, and the show’s executive producer, Bernie Lucht, both of whom are respected journalists with a long history of producing quality reports, to explain their decision to run the program. Ideas, for one, recently ran a long series on the subject at hand that treats the science of anthropogenic global warming as settled.
Cayley refused to discuss the program with me, Lucht replied in an email to Ban and me that:
The central argument revolved around whether or not “the science is settled” …. We also took it as interesting, and worthy of public note, that a respected environmentalist would challenge the current consensus on climate change. So David Cayley arranged to interview him. Our presumption in doing so was not that Mr. Solomon is necessarily right, but that his view deserves to be heard.
No argument there. His views do deserve to be heard. As do those who deny that vaccines save lives, that biological evolution explains the diversity of life, or that the Earth is a sphere. That dissenting opinion exists is a valid story. But journalists have an obligation to challenge such statements, not just let them propagate into the public sphere with no context or criticism. For them to give Solomon’s arguments an unchallenged platform is simply contrary to the professional principles I and most of the journalists I know, live and work with.
Lucht wrote that
It needs to be said here that Mr. Solomon is not a scientist and does not claim to be. He is an environmental activist who has undertaken to expose the views of reputable scientists, who in some way dissent from the current orthodoxy.
Even though the “reputable” scientists Solomon cites simply aren’t.
I asked Lucht if he would give similar treatment to anti-vaccine activists or Holocaust deniers. I have yet to receive a reply.
Ideas has a history of airing iconoclastic reports on scientific issues, such as a 1992 program on Peter Duesberg and his theory that HIV does not cause AIDS. That made for a fascinating,and responsible, program �;;;; in 1992. It wouldn’t be so today. The same applies to Larry Solomon’s arguments. We’re talking about important public policy issues. Arguably climate change is the most important public policy challenge of our time.
That’s not to say there won’t be some new discoveries in the future that challenge the current consensus. But Solomon hasn’t found any real evidence to challenge the consensus. By not challenging his arguments, the CBC effectively said to its audience: this guy may have a point even though any honest effort to evaluate his arguments would conclude that he doesn’t.
I’ll give the last word to Stephen Ban, whose debunking of the Ideas program should be required reading at the entire CBC, not just the ombudsman’s office to which it was addressed:
Could CBC not have employed a single fact checker to investigate any of Mr. Solomon’s claims? Is it responsible journalism to grant a soapbox to Mr. Solomon without examining whether any of his claims and allegations have any merit? Mr. Cayley needs to be held accountable for disseminating what amounts to guileless unscientific propaganda.