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Watts it like at a climate skeptic speakers event?

Posted on 20 June 2010 by Megan Evans

Guest post by Megan Evans

When faced with the prospect of attending a climate skeptic speakers event such as the current Watts Up with the Climate? tour of Australia, anyone who understands climate change science could easily think of a plethora of reasons not to go: I don’t want to provide any further opportunity for the skeptics to propagate their disinformation, I can’t bear to hand over my hard earned money to fund their campaign, I fear I may gnaw my own arm off in frustration whilst listening to the talks, and so on. I considered all of these before attending last week’s event in Brisbane, where Anthony Watts, David Archibald and Bob Carter spoke about why we shouldn’t be concerned about climate change. Although I certainly listened to the talks, was more broke after I left than when I arrived, and found the whole occasion undeniably frustrating, it turns out that the event wasn’t really what I expected – in fact, I almost enjoyed myself.

The attendance was certainly less than Watts would have hoped for – it seems that the awareness through word of mouth wasn’t enough to pull a sizeable crowd (Noosa’s event on Friday evening was attended by just 36 people). Watts’ presentation focussed on his view that the temperature record is unreliable, suggesting that factors such as the positioning and the type of paint used on weather stations seriously undermine the accuracy of surface temperature measurements. So focussed in fact, that his 45 minute presentation consisted almost entirely on photograph after photograph of temperature stations in apparently compromising positions, with no data analysis in sight (note to Anthony: occasionally plotting the data doesn’t cut it).


Watts made a point of saying “this is how we measure climate” after every second or third photograph of a temperature station, as if as if repeating it over and over would compel people to believe it. Of course, Watts carefully ignores the fact that we also use satellites to measure temperatures all over the world. During questions I put this to him, and asked to explain why satellite and surface station measurements of temperature agree – if according to him temperatures measured on ground are all wrong. His response, that the measurements “agree somewhat”, ignores the science which confirms the accuracy of the temperature record regardless of how close to an air conditioner or hot bitumen road a weather station may be. Watts also found time to go into how the hockey stick was broken, and that the CO2 effect is saturated, and finished with a bizarre analogy with “if you put too much salt in your soup, you reach a threshold where you don’t notice any more salty taste”. That might be the case, but you’d probably end with high blood pressure pretty quickly!

David Archibald’s overdramatic and jargon-filled presentation included a stunning array of skeptic arguments, where most of the top ten got a mention. He flicked through endless graphics about solar flares and sunspots at such a pace that I could barely keep up with what they were meant to show, leaving me utterly confused about what on earth he was talking about. It seemed that Watts felt the same way, as he spent the majority of Archibald’s presentation reading over the Skeptical Science leaflet, Climate change: the full picture. Apart from explaining the importance of considering all of the available evidence before coming to a conclusion, the leaflet also discussed the minimal influence of the urban heat island effect on warming trends, so perhaps it will help Anthony with his research.

Archibald also made a point of mentioning throughout his talk that whatever he was talking about was really simple or “basic science”, before hurtling into the next argument. I was reminded of sitting through my undergraduate linear algebra classes where if the lecturer suggested that something should be easy to understand, and you didn’t understand, you felt really stupid for asking them to clarify. The pace and confusing content of his presentation effectively meant that the audience had to rely on trusting that whatever he was saying was correct. This seems unfair - someone who is unsure of how or where to find reputable information could easily be forgiven for taking whatever Archibald or the others were saying as fact.

After all, these self-proclaimed “independent scientists” are apparently free from the “corruption” that is supposedly rife throughout all of the universities, research institutions and governments throughout the world, so are effectively claiming to be the only remaining source of information about climate change that people should trust. Ridiculous as this is, the no consensus argument was a major theme that was emphasised throughout the night.

In his concluding address, Bob Carter reemphasised the take home messages of the night: 1) Temp record is unreliable, 2) CO2 effect is saturated, 3) CO2 is plant food, and 4) It’s the sun. He argued that we spend in the order of $60 billion per year on climate science, yet we are none the wiser about the state of the climate – and suggested that we could instead cure poverty with that amount of money. I was glad that Bob was concerned about the plight of people living in extreme poverty, but confused that he did not consider the impacts that climate change is already having on people all around the world.

Archibald went further to say that the best that could be done for poverty is to in fact pump more CO2 into the atmosphere, as this would provide “more food to feed the third world”. The truth is unfortunately not that simple – plants don’t just need food, they need water too – something that will be in much shorter supply with the increased frequencies and lengths of drought that climate change will bring. Carter may like to think of himself and the other speakers as “rationalists”, but the tactics that climate skeptics routinely employ to discredit science goes against the very definition of rationality.

Despite all of the misinformation, obfuscation, and frustration from hearing the same tired arguments churned out and chopped and changed throughout the night, I’m glad that I went. I’m grateful that I was given the chance to ask questions of the speakers and raise my concerns, and I was glad to be able to meet with other attendees and discuss points of disagreement in a low-key, friendly environment. One man told me that it was good just to be able to talk things through, while another thanked me for my questions. The experience made me reconsider initial resistance to go anywhere near a climate skeptics event, as it seems that although the Watts visit to Australia has yet to draw much attention from the general public at all, he and his fellow skeptics are not likely to fade away if simply we pretend they’re not there. Seeing and hearing firsthand how Watts, Carter and Archibald shamelessly mislead people made me realise how important it to try to engage in a dialogue with climate skeptics – and not just over blogs, but in person (and preferably over a drink). If that means politely sitting through a seemingly endless collection travel photos on the off chance that you could make your voice heard, then I think I can live with that. The alternative is sit back and allow the circus to roll on by.

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Comments 101 to 107 out of 107:

  1. "Noosa’s event on Friday evening was attended by just 36 people" Reading that made my day.
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  2. Sorry moderator, but I just can't let John D's latest comments go by without a response. You seriously don't get it-do you John? Nobody here has claimed that-under ideal conditions-CO2 *can't* be a plant food. What they've claimed is that its not that simple because (a) global warming won't provide for ideal conditions & (b) that it is nitrogen, water & trace elements that are more limiting factors on plant growth than CO2 abundance. For all your talk, you've not managed to answer several key questions which are: (a) under ideal conditions, can increased CO2 levels enhance plant biomass for the long-term, given acclimation? (b) even ignoring acclimation, can increased CO2 levels enhance plant biomass given a warmer & drier environment? (c) will increased vegetative biomass, from increased CO2 levels, automatically translate into significantly greater seed yields? (d) does increased quantity of edible biomass automatically translate into increased *quality* of edible biomass. (e) will increased CO2 levels impose any additional costs on farmers? (very important given the slim margins on which most farmers operate). Based on the evidence provided by the *one* FACE trial you've linked to, I'd say the answer is that, (a) though increased CO2 can provide short-term increases in total biomass (under ideal conditions) acclimation might eventually erode those benefits; (b) that though there was a significant increase in total plant biomass, this wasn't translating into significant increases in seed yield for most varieties & (c) that seed quality (in terms of protein content) was decreased, but total nitrogen demand from the plant was increased. As someone who actually deals with farmers on a regular basis, if you were to try & promote that to farmers as a *benefit* from increasing CO2 emissions, they'd probably laugh in your face-rightly pointing out that ideal conditions are already hard to come by, that seed yield & seed quality are all that's ultimately important, & that they would be ill-equipped to afford the significant increase in fertilizer costs that this enriched CO2 environment would demand.
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  3. Hi Megan, It doesn't sound like fun. I'd be mad if I was those two people photographed. I'm just trying to figure out why they are doing this tour. The tour is sponsored by he Climate sceptics party. Were they trying to sign up members to that political party or handing out party literature or party doctrine?
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  4. pinkie - I didn't see any party literature while I was there (not that looked particularly hard for it), and I don't recall any mention of the climate skeptics party while at the event. I guess Watts and the others are simply trying to get more support for their cause and to confuse the debate as much as possible. It wasn't particularly fun ;), but I wanted to go as I feel like it's important to counter these things directly.
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  5. Perhaps the sparse attendance is linked to this article on Climate Progress, which points out the falling readership of anti-science blogs, particularly on ClimateAudit but also on WUWT. Good discussions there, too, beneath the article.
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  6. Here's an article that might be relevant. Those who say that an increase in CO2 will lead to an increase in agricultural productivity are basically saying something along the lines that currently farmers have optimized their production for a different zone from the one in which they live, that all plants have the same requirements for temperature and water, or that there is no cost and no loss of productivity associated with retooling to grow a different crop. Maybe parts of Canada and Siberia will be able to support growing wheat where they weren't before. So what? Open Google Earth and compare areas where wheat is grown with tundra regions. Wheat growing regions have roads, railways, and towns with shops, hospitals, and schools every 20-40 miles. How many people think you can put those into new regions at no cost or loss of productivity?
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  7. Regarding public debates, if Bohr and Oppenheimer had a public debate on some aspect of nuclear physics, how the heck would the average person have been able to determine who's argument was better? It's the same thing with climate science. Actually, there already is a forum for public debate of climate science. They are called research journals, peer-reviewed ones at that. Anyone who thinks that only staid agreement occurs in these publications hasn't followed any lines between dissenting researchers. Lindzen appears to be the most worthy champion of the no-problem camp. But then, if he is correct that earth's climate is self-regulating, how does he explain the large range of climates in earth's past?
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  8. Marcus at 09:41 AM on 23 June, 2010, I have posted at response over at "CO2 is not a pollutant" having had it deleted from here. I have also copied your post over there as part of my response to provide continuity even though your post has been allowed to remain here.
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  9. Chris G at 08:00 AM, is not the climate, at the most basic level, self regulating within limits determined by the properties of H2O and in particular the points at which it changes state?
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