UK Secretary of State for the Environment reveals his depth of knowledge of climate change (not!)

An extraordinary - and worrying - insight into the mind of Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment here in the UK, was provided during a June 7th edition of the political Q&A programme Any Questions, available on BBC Radio 4 here. The programme is broadcast from a different venue every week and consists of chairman Jonathan Dimbleby and a panel of four politicians and commentators plus a studio audience who ask a selection of topical questions. This edition was from my home town of Machynlleth in Mid Wales and more specifically from the Centre for Alternative Technology, which has been promoting renewable energy and other sustainability issues since the 1970s.

This week's panel was made up of Peter Hain, Labour MP for Neath, Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, Owen Paterson, UK Secretary of State for the Environment and James Delingpole, blogger and well-known inhabitant of an alternate universe when it comes to climate science.

A question from audience member Sally Carr (at 29 minutes 22 secs into the broadcast) caught my attention:

"Are those concerned about climate change talking anti-scientific green ideological nonsense?"

This is of course a Delingpole quote (Daily Telegraph, June 4th 2013) turned back at him, as Dimbleby himself observed. Delingpole was on first and gave a typical performance stuffed to the gills with strawman arguments and many 'usual suspect' talking points that we have debunked beyond death here at Skeptical Science - "no warming since 1997", of course, plus a few throwaway comments about yoghourt-weavers and eco-loons, accompanied by much spirited heckling. The only thing missing was a "POLAR BEARS ARE NOT EXTINCT" arm-waving exercise. All typical Delingpole and exactly what anyone would expect. The following graphic is sufficient to address his entire attitude in general:

The Escalator

above: animation showing how the same temperature data (green) that is used to determine the long-term global surface air warming trend of 0.16°C per decade (red) can be used inappropriately to "cherrypick" short time periods that show a cooling trend simply because the endpoints are carefully chosen and the trend is dominated by short-term noise in the data (blue steps).

Leanne Wood was next, and she firmly recommended that we go with the science, mentioning the 97% consensus that has been in the news rather a lot in recent weeks. Peter Hain had people chuckling with his description of Delingpole as the Flat-Earther of the climate debate and went on to say that even to a non-scientist the meltdown of the Arctic was obvious to anyone as a sign that something was well and truly wrong. Finally it was the turn of Secretary of State for the Environment Owen Paterson, and his answer was so utterly, breathtakingly gob-smacking that I have transcribed the main part of it in full. Each climate change myth he repeats is linked to the most closely appropriate Skeptical Science myth-busting page (opening in a new window):

"Well I'm sitting like a rose between two thorns here and I have to take practical decisions - erm - the climate's always been changing - er - Peter mentioned the Arctic and I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there - when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops - we then had a little ice age, we had a middle age warming - the climate's been going up and down - but the real question which I think everyone's trying to address is - is this influenced by manmade activity in recent years and James is actually correct - the climate has not changed - the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years and what I think we've got to be careful of is that there is almost certainly - bound to be - some influence by manmade activity but I think we've just got to be rational (audience laughter)  - rational people - and make sure the measures that we take to counter it don't actually cause more damage - and I think we're about to get -"

Peter Hain interjects: "And this man is our Secretary of State for the Environment, for goodness' sake!"

That was - in a matter of a few tens of seconds, climate myths 1, 170 (possibly - see below), 39, 46, 27, 1 again, 4, 45, 9 and 37, as listed in the Skeptical Science Most Used Climate Myths database that appears on the left-hand side of all Skeptical Science pages. That sure is impressive and looks, in terms of the myth numbers, more like a massive Chinese Takeaway order than the collected thoughts of a Government Minister.

One claim - "in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely" - requires a bit of clarification, particularly because it is followed immediately by, "when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops". These two things are completely unrelated and thousands of years apart from one another. In the early Holocene, between ca. 8500 and 6000 years ago, the seasonal extent of Arctic sea-ice was sharply reduced. Along the coast of NE Greenland, there are well-developed wave-generated beach ridges dating from this time which document seasonally open water as far north as 83oN (as opposed to 'completely', by the way). The paper (Polyak et al, 2010) is available (PDF) here. But what does this tell us? In a nutshell, it illustrates something we are already realising from present-day observations: that the Arctic sea-ice is extremely sensitive to changes in climate forcings. In the case of the early Holocene, the forcing was a maximum in Milankovitch-related northern high latitude summer insolation. In the case of now, as Polyak et al say in the same paper:

"The current reduction in Arctic ice cover started in the late 19th century, consistent with the rapidly warming climate, and became very pronounced over the last three decades. This ice loss appears to be unmatched over at least the last few thousand years and unexplainable by any of the known natural variabilities."

One thing that should be brought to Owen Paterson's urgent attention is the recent work at Lake El'gygytgyn in Arctic Russia, undertaken by the international team led by Julia Brigham-Grette, which has succeeded in obtaining an unbroken lake sediment record stretching back 3.6 million years. This unprecedented record - through all the glacials and interglacials and beyond into the Pliocene, has been covered by us here and here. Why is it so very important? Because, once again, the extreme sensitivity of the Arctic to climate forcings is demonstrated, but on an even more worrying scale. Never mind the sea-ice: the work documents how, during what are termed 'super-interglacials', with greenhouse gas levels comparable to those of the present day, the Greenland Ice-Sheet disappeared. The same thing happened in West Antarctica, as you can discover by following the two links above. In combination, such land-ice losses today would see a rise in sea levels getting on for fifteen metres over a number of centuries (which incidentally would mean the eventual loss of most of Machynlleth).

Machynlleth and sea-level rise

above: Machynlleth, where Paterson was speaking, with the 10m and 20m contours shaded. In terms of sea-level rise, this would be the reality were the Greenland and West Antarctica ice-sheets to collapse. Never mind complaining about wind turbines: this really would change the scenery!

Back to the programme, and following Hain's interjection, Dimbleby wondered if Paterson ever expressed similar views when talking to the Secretary of State for Energy (Paterson is a Conservative and the Energy portfolio is held by his Coalition partner, Liberal Democrat Ed Davey). Paterson went into a long reply which was centered around what is a valid point: yes, there is no point in exporting the problem by closing down UK industry and then buying industrial products from countries like China. Erm, that's exactly what we have been doing this past 30 years, regardless of who has been in charge, and that's not been about tackling climate change, it's been about making money. But back to his answer about climate change itself. It is so riddled with juxtaposed factoids and long-debunked climate myths that if it were the hull of a boat there would be more holes than fibreglass!

As Peter Hain pointed out though, this particular boat is the Environment, and Owen Patterson (who says that 'the temperature has not changed in the last seventeen years') is currently the Skipper. Unfortunately, we happen to be the passengers, and this is the reality of our current course:

Fig 1

above: land, atmosphere, and ice heating (red), 0-700 meter ocean heat content (OHC) increase (light blue), 700-2,000 meter OHC increase (dark blue).  From Nuccitelli et al. (2012).

Far from the alternate realities of Delingpole (who doesn't matter) and Paterson (who does, because he's supposed to be in charge of environmental affairs), is the simple fact that Planet Earth - the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere - has, since 1998, been accumulating heat at the rate of four Hiroshima bombs per second, every second. On that basis, Shipmates, I think it's about time we took this vessel full astern. What say you?

Posted by John Mason on Wednesday, 12 June, 2013

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