Yesterdays April Fool’s Day post doesn’t seem to have taken in too many people, and what follows in this post should put the record straight anyway. Incidentally the butterfly (or is it a moth?) in the picture that I took was collected in Kashmir by my late father-in-law while on leave from a posting in India during WWII. You can just see the pin that was used to mount it in its case if you look carefully. Sadly none of this is in quite the same league as the BBC’s superb flying penguins. See here.

When I read the article in The Independent that I posted about yesterday, my first reaction was that it could be reprinted verbatim as an All Fools Day spoof. If you didn’t know that it was a front-page story in Brittain’s greenest newspaper, it could easily be mistaken for satire.

Passing swiftly over the obvious fact that the changing behaviour of lepidoptera, common wild flowers and trees, tells us only that there has been a slight variation in temperature over the last century a commonplace what are we supposed to learn from The Indipendent’s story? This kind of ‘evidence’ says nothing about the cause of any warming, whether natural or anthropogenic, only that it has got warmer, and who would doubt that?

The main thrust of the article is concerned with phenology – the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena – a pastime that was popular in the 19th century, but fell into disuse during the 20th century until concern about climate change allowed Dr Tim Sparks to revive it. The idea was that the apparent association between temperature and the transition from season to season, using proxies like first flowering dates, would provide useful information about climate change. It is very difficult to understand why climatologists would attach any importance to this as we have perfectly good temperature records, based on thermometer readings, that do the same thing with far greater precision. Proxies are, after all, observations from which data can be deduced, more or less reliably, when direct observations are not available. Here is what a vice president of the Royal Meteorological Society has to say about phenology. It may also explain why this rather obscure branch of science went out of fashion:

Plants and animals are, of course, affected by the weather, but they are affected by other things too. Information collected about flowering dates, hibernation times, the arrival and departure of snow and ice, are all called ‘secondary data’ or ‘proxy data’ by climate experts.
All these secondary indicators are affected by other factors such as human intervention, genetic modification, pesticides, fertilisers, pollution ,and complex interactions with other elements of a changing ecology. Some of them respond to climate change with a delay of years or even decades.
Philip Eden, A Change in the Weather, p 188-9

It would seem that the scientific value of phenology is questionable, while its potential for launching eye catching scare stories about global warming is a gift to the media.

To give one example, Dr Tim Sparks waxed lyrical in The Independent about the erstwhile place of the humble lawn mower as a metric in the study of climate change.

“We do have problems now recording some of what used to be signs of spring,” Dr Sparks said last night. “For example, we used to record the first grass cutting of the year. But in many places now grass grows all year round and so it has to be cut all year round.”

It would be kind to assume that Dr Sparks is too preoccupied with his groundbreaking research to take much interest in the practical aspects of looking after a garden. Until about thirty years ago – just when temperatures began to rise a bit drum mowers were about the only means of taming a lawn. To do so these temperamental beasts required optimum conditions and, above all, warm weather and longer spring days to dry the grass. Drum mowers did not cut wet grass, and so were not used during the winter. Since rotary mowers, which work well in any conditions have all but replaced them, it has become possible to cut your lawn earlier in the spring, or even during the winter if you wish to do so. Inevitably some people do wish to do so, although I still follow the same rule that I have always used; first cut at Easter or the beginning of April, whichever comes sooner. Looking out of the window now, it will be a few days more before I have to get the mower out, although I could have cut it week or two ago if I was really keen.

Articles like this are written for a niche readership; people who believe that any climate variation is evidence of intrusive human activity and are not too interested in whether the evidence is plausible or not. Does The Independent think that because some of his readers believe in anthropogenic global warming they will believe anything? I very much hope not.

But if this really is what the editor of The Independent expects then he should look at the comments on the Have Your Say page that accompanied the article. Here are a couple of examples:

Posted by: Mr J. Bridges | Thursday, 20 March 2008 at 12:18 PM

Another load of propaganda from the “green bleaters”. Back in my childhood days in the late 1940s in rural Hampshire, I always picked a small bunch of primroses on Christmas day.

Posted by: Chris Bindon | Friday, 21 March 2008 at 12:15 PM

Vanessids, like the red admiral pictured in the Independent frequently overwinter as adults. They emerge when the weather warms. It is common to find them flying on warm February days, if we get them. Unfortunately they rarely survive this early wakening as there are few food-plants flowering and they are unable to re-enter diapause once woken.
Song thrushes, at least the males, have always started singing on warmer nights in February, or even January. And they usually sing in the pre-dawn dark from about 2 hours before sunrise. They need to claim breeding territories as soon as possible. – comments

When I read through the first 43 comments, I was astonished at the degree of scepticism that was expressed. A rough analysis produced the following result:

  • Sceptical 29
  • Warmers 6
  • Neutral 6
  • Incoherent 2

Of course this is not a scientific assessment of the readership’s position on climate change. But it is still pretty startling in view of the barrage of global warming stories that they have been subjected to in recent years. Most people know little more about the scientific basis for current concerns about the climate than what the media tells them. Those who have taken the trouble to enquire more deeply into the subject know that most of what the media reports is wildly inaccurate and exaggerated. But this is something that the public seem to understand instinctively. They may not understand the science, but they do recognise hype when they see it.

All this leaves the editor in a pretty difficult position. All newspapers publish stories that they think their readers will be interested in. Advertisers, who provide the bulk of the paper’s revenue, place their adverts in publications that attract readers who are likely to be interested in their products. The Independent carries a lot of adverts for products and services that will appeal to people who are particularly concerned about ‘the environment’.

If the editor changes his policy on global warming, to match the sceptical attitude of his readership, then advertisers will take their business elsewhere. If he continues to publish ludicrous scare stories like this one, then readers are likely to move to other papers anyway.

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