News: King of the North Pole

Posted by TonyN on 12/02/2008 at 9:24 am In the News Add comments
Feb 122008

The problem with retirement is that you still need to have something to do. For many the chance to devote more time to the garden, redecorating the house, compiling a family tree or taking long walks in the countryside may be enough. Others will be content to take each day as it comes, doing a little of this, a little of that, and not being too concerned about doing nothing at all. But what if you have spent your whole life scrabbling your way to the very top of a competitive profession? What will replace the daily adrenalin rush of being in the public eye once you are no longer a main player?

At the end of last year Sir David King stepped down as the Government’s chief scientific adviser after seven years in that post. This is, perhaps, the highest profile job that a scientist can aspire to in this country, and King is not a man to shrink from the attention of the media. Indeed he seems to thrive on any opportunity to keep his name in the headlines. A well calculated sound bite about global warming being a more serious threat than terrorism even landed him in trouble with 10, Downing Street, but he seemed quite unrepentant as he explained on BBC Radio’s Today program recently.

I think there is no other statement that raised the profile at the time of the issue of climate change more. And as a result I’ve actually travelled very widely around the world at the invitation of foreign governments all over the place to talk about climate change and what needs to be done.

BBC Radio4 Toady 20/12/07 8:30am Listen Again

That’s quite a boast, and all that travelling must have been fun too.

More recently Sir David came up with another brilliant sound bite when he suggested that it was ecologically unsound for young women to fancy men who drive fast, fossil fuel hungry, Ferraris. So it was no surprise to come across him again on Radio4’s Start the Week programme last month, less than three weeks after his retirement. He was telling Andrew Marr and a million or two listeners about his new book: The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On. Adrenalin is a habit-forming drug, and Sir David must have taken the wise precaution of securing his supply by preparing this manuscript for publication well before he left office.

As Andrew Marr gently led the now ex-chief scientist through a well honed book publicity routine, it was clear that the starting point for any discussion of anthropogenic climate change was that it is definitely happening, nobody should question the scientific evidence, and it can be stopped if everyone tries really, really hard. The presenter certainly wasn’t going to ask any awkward questions.

This will surprise no one who has followed the BBC’s coverage of global warming. Even Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, writing in the BBC’s house magazine Ariel in January 2007, admitted that the Corporation has abandoned all pretence of impartiality on this subject. So Sir David, a South African chemist with a lifetime’s commitment to radical politics, was given an easy ride even when he made the quite breathtaking claim that, ‘we will certainly lose the North Pole by mid-century’. This reminded me of the airline pilot who left a laconic note for the maintenance crew in the cockpit of his aircraft saying, ‘Port engine missing.’ When he turned up for his next flight, he found that someone had helpfully added, ‘Port engine located on port wing, after brief search’.

Are we to understand that by 2050 there will be expeditions scouring the northern hemisphere for a missing pole? Might satellites help to track it down, or will some clever computer model predict just where we will find it in 2100? Is it possible that an eminent chemist who has spent the last seven years advising the British government on greater threats than terrorism does not know that the North Pole only exists as a theoretical point on maps? It is, of course, just a geometric construct that indicates where lines of longitude meet. But Sir David is in the process of launching a new book that explains to mere laymen what climate change is all about. Obviously he must be an expert on this subject, and probably knows some elementary geography too. So what on earth was he talking about?

Well its probably quite simple really. The cover of Sir David’s book features an eye catching picture of a cuddly polar bear family, and as most people know by now, the opportunity to cuddle a polar bear, if you are sufficiently insane or suicidal to try, is about to vanish, along with that damned pole presumably. Or so Sir David King and a lot of other people who share his views would like everyone else to think. For some time now a team of researchers at the University of Colorado have been very successfully briefing the press about the imminent disappearance of all the sea ice in the Arctic. And if the ice goes, then what will happen to the bears? Not to mention the North Pole.

Hot Topic Cover

The science that underlies this prediction is really rather interesting, although perhaps not in quite the way that the researchers, or Sir David, would like. Satellite images of the Arctic are analysed to establish the extent of the sea ice on a seasonal and annual basis, so that graphs can be drawn. The overall trend is certainly downwards, but does this tell us anything about what might happen by 2050? A clue to this is in the source of the data; satellite images. These first became available in 1979, so the scientists have got less than thirty years of records to work with. Given that temperatures have generally risen during that period, then it is hardly surprising that this has been some effect the Arctic sea ice. As we do not have satellite images dating from the 1930s, which was also a warm period, or from the mid 20th century cold period, it is rather difficult to tell whether what has happened since 1979 is in any way unusual. What is certain is that it has been recognised since the dawn of science that drawing conclusions from short data sets is very risky; in fact it is generally considered to be bad science. Its rather like saying that, because the stock market has risen for the last three weeks you should invest all your savings because if the present rate of increase is maintained for five years you will become a millionaire. If the behaviour of highly complex chaotic systems was that easy to predict then we would all become rich and we really might have some idea what the extent of the Arctic sea ice will be by the middle of this century. In the meantime all we can be sure of is that scary press releases about vanishing ice are very welcome on news desks at he moment, particularly if they can be illustrated with pictures of cuddly looking creatures.

I expect that this was what Sir David King was trying to explain when he said that, ‘we will certainly lose the North Pole by mid-century’. He just didn’t want to bother anyone with the details. Or perhaps he was groping for another real winner of a sound bite and it went a bit wrong. In either case it is probably wise for laymen to remain sceptical about what politically committed scientist say about global warming on the radio, at least for as long as they find it necessary to exaggerate the evidence for dramatic effect, and presenters avoid asking obvious questions. I’m sure that The Hot Topic will give a far more well-balanced account of climate research, and become a best seller.

By the way, ‘his book’ has a co-author, a journalist called Gabrielle Walker, and Sir David forgot to mention that to Andrew Marr and all those listeners too.

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