Watts it like at a climate skeptic speakers event?

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.

Posted by Megan Evans on Sunday, 20 June, 2010

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