What we can learn from Joe Oliver

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has finally admitted he doubts the scientific case for dangerous climate change. While he later backpedaled, what is more interesting is where Mr. Oliver is getting his information: from a noted climate-change denier writing for the Financial Post, and from articles published in The Economist.

Oliver's statements were made in an editorial board interview with La Presse in Montreal. Oliver claimed "I think that people aren’t as worried as they were before about global warming of two degrees," and "Scientists have recently told us that our fears (on climate change) are exaggerated".

Does this make Oliver a climate change denier? Joe says no. Our take: If it walks and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. Joe Oliver's job is to sell pipelines to Americans who are increasingly anxious about the Harper government's environmental record. Of course Mr. Oliver is going to defend the government's official policy that climate change is a "serious issue." It is only in the brief, unscripted, moments that you can get insights into a Harper Minister's personal opinions.

The more serious issue here is where Mr. Oliver got his information. As Heather Scoffield reports, "the minister’s staff pointed to an article by climate-change skeptic Lawrence Solomon as well as quotes in The Economist." Let's look into both a little further.

Lawrence Solomon is a well-known climate change denier who writes a weekly column for the Financial Post. Just last week he wrote an article titled "Arctic sea ice back to 1989 levels, now exceeds previous decade". In the article he claimed "the ice extent has varied wildly" and that "The only evident trend in the ice, as in the weather, is variability."

Hogwash.

Sea ice grows during winter and shrinks during summer owing to the seasonal cycle of temperatures. The thirty-year trend for March -- the time period Solomon is concerned with -- is clearly downward, and the plot for the sea-ice minimum in September (you know, after the summer melt) is heart-breaking. The Arctic is in serious trouble. There are no northerners who deny the reality of climate change. They see its effects every day.

Oh yeah: Solomon is also head of Energy Probe, an oil industry-supported lobby group, whose site provides a veritable smorgasbord of climate denialism. That should give you a fair idea of where he is coming from.

Few take Lawrence Solomon seriously. The Economist magazine, however, is another story. They recently published a pair of articles, "Apocalypse perhaps a little later" and "A sensitive matter". The former is the Coles-notes version and the latter gives the details. The articles highlight that there is a lot we still do not understand about how the Earth's climate is changing. In particular, in recent years there has been a flattening of the temperature trend that is still unexplained. This is all fair enough.

The Economist also says "some scientists are arguing that man-made climate change is not quite so bad a threat as it appeared to be a few years ago." Very well. Debate is healthy.

Then this: "But whatever the reason, some of the really ghastly scenarios—where the planet heated up by 4°C or more this century—are coming to look mercifully unlikely." And this: "But given the hiatus in warming and all the new evidence, a small reduction in estimates of climate sensitivity would seem to be justified: a downwards nudge on various best estimates from 3°C to 2.5°C, perhaps; a lower ceiling (around 4.5°C), certainly. If climate scientists were credit-rating agencies, climate sensitivity would be on negative watch. But it would not yet be downgraded."

This is a complete mis-representation of the science.

Climate sensitivity gives the amount of warming that we expect to occur for a doubling of CO2. Of course, we're not likely going to just double CO2. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported a variety of future emissions scenarios depending on whether or not we choose to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions. Currently we are tracking the worst case scenario fairly well, and so the end result will be more than just a simple doubling of CO2. The amount of warming we get in the end will likely exceed the sensitivity value. Even the International Energy Agency is sounding the alarm.

What does the current science have to say about climate sensitivity? RealClimate ("Climate science from climate scientists") provided a review in January, well before the current uproar, with references to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Their conclusion? "The ‘meta-uncertainty’ across the methods remains stubbornly high with support for both relatively low numbers around 2ºC and higher ones around 4ºC, so that is likely to remain the consensus range." Put another way, the debate around climate sensitivity will continue.

The article by The Economist, on the other hand, concentrated only on the papers arguing for lower sensitivity. Most alarming of all, they drew their own conclusion that climate sensitivity should be "downgraded". This conclusion is not supported by the literature. The scientific community certainly has not come to this conclusion. That The Economist would make such a pronouncement is the height of journalistic irresponsibility.

What can we learn from this? What journalists write really matters. What publishers choose to publish really matters. It clearly mattered to Minister Oliver, and owing to his position as a Minister it will to you and me. Make no mistake about it: Science has been telling us for decades that climate change is a grave problem. Environment Minister Peter Kent even reported on climate change way back in 1984 when he was a journalist at CBC, saying there is a "complex global chain reaction which threatens to change irreversibly life on this planet". We ignore climate change -- and what journalists are saying about it -- at our own peril.

See also:

Wikipedia: Climate Sensitivity

National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC): Arctic Sea Ice News

CBC: Joe Oliver beats back accusations of climate change denial

Lawrence Solomon/Financial Post: Climate changing for global warming journalists

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