For years I have marvelled at the way The Australian’s Graham Lloyd has spun climate science research to boost scepticism about global warming and the need for action.
Take a recent Lloyd’s piece ‘La Nina clue to sun’s power on climate’ (The Australian 8 April 2021) that reviews the findings of the much more prosaically labelled paper ‘Termination of Solar Cycles and Correlated Tropospheric Variability’ (Leamon, McIntosh and ‘Marsh: Earth and Science’ Volume 8, Issue 4 April 2021).
It fits his long-established pattern of suggesting some natural cause for global warming – in this case, the sun – rather than the growth in carbon emissions.
It brought my past rushing back to me.
A long, long time ago I was a member of the Australian Climate Commission – appointed to explain the science, impacts and policies to address global warming. I was sacked from that post in the first week of the Abbott government. The only time in 50 years of government service, consulting and holding various corporate and advisory positions that I was sacked. It was a badge of honour.
The Climate Commission published papers and held public meetings all over Australia. The town hall-style meetings often became quite heated. They too attracted the extremes as well as those genuinely seeking information. One speaker demanded that men of my generation should be silenced – we had created the problem and couldn’t be trusted to be part of the solution.
Some were just strange – one said “what’s the problem if the world gets warmer, we got on perfectly well when dinosaurs roamed the earth” – we were not sure if she thought that Jurassic Park was a documentary or if she was a Creationist who believed the world was only 5,000 years old.
But many others angrily questioned the science and accused us of being consciously part of a global conspiracy to mislead.
We found ourselves, rather ruefully, putting together a profile of these angry people. They were predominantly men, mainly old and often claimed a background in science (usually geology or astronomy) or engineering. Few were published in peer-reviewed journals, fewer still claimed to be trained and publishing in atmospheric physics, chemistry, oceanography or climatology and some just resented ‘being told how to think’.
And often they quoted Graham Lloyd. I am sure they hungrily searched for information that backed up their gut feeling. And over the years Graham Lloyd has carefully fed it to them through his columns in The Australian.
But they weren’t stupid. I am sure they would have been “influencers” in their social circle. They produced arguments – we heard them all. The top ten went something like this:
- Any warming is perfectly natural – it has happened before.
- It’s caused by the sun .
- Warming isn’t actually happening – it has stopped since 1998.
- Warming isn’t happening – world and national meteorological bodies are manipulating the data.
- It’s not a big deal – coral bleaching on the reef has been hugely exaggerated.
- Severe weather events aren’t increasing – we have had big fires/floods before.
- Climate models can’t be trusted.
- Economic models can be trusted and they show huge costs – wind and solar power are unreliable and infrasound from wind farms causes severe health problems.
- Antarctic ice coverage has increased offsetting any decline in Arctic ice.
- Climate change is real – but it’s less important than poverty or nuclear risks, resources shouldn’t be diverted to dealing with it – only no regrets policies are worthwhile.
At various times over the last decade or more Graham Lloyd has highlighted each of these claims – moving on as facts contradict them.
Graham is described by his employer The Australian as “a fearless reporter of all sides of the environment debate”.
The title of Lloyd’s piece La Nina clue to sun’s power on climate will immediately cause sceptics to prick up their ears – see, the sceptics will say, we told you that it’s mainly the sun influencing global warming (of course Graham would say he doesn’t write the headlines).
If they actually read Lloyd’s piece they will come to these statements:
“… the research tries to ‘open a broader scientific discussion of solar coupling to the Earth’”
“… the findings add to the belief by some scientists that solar activity … has a much greater impact on the Earth’s climate than thought”.
All true, but ever so slightly misleading. The paper is strictly about solar irradiance variability and its impact on climate variability and not on long term climate change – global warming. The El Nino/La Nina cycle is a key example of variability. Climate change is about the long-run trend in temperature around which this variability happens.
While there is no doubt that solar irradiance (along with volcanos) impacts the global climate it is not the major factor in explaining global warming – greenhouse gases are. If we look at the rolling average of total solar irradiance it has in fact declined since peaking in 1960, precisely at the time when the global temperature has been most strongly rising.
Indeed it is entirely possible to read the Leamon et al study to suggest that ongoing global warming just might deepen the ENSO cycle and tip the world more in the direction of severe weather events. This is what they say:
“It is probably not a coincidence that the period of terminator‐ENSO correlation corresponds to the close‐to‐monotonic rise in global sea surface temperatures over the same time period …”
“ … Such circulation changes are only likely to intensify in a future with higher tropical heat and moisture at the sea surface, affecting not only tropospheric climate but also stratospheric dynamics.”
Nothing in Graham Lloyd’s article is actually wrong – but it emits a message quite inconsistent with a careful reading of the Leamon et al paper.
In fact, one of my eminent climate scientist friends said to me he was surprised to see a modest article in a minor publication lifted to page 4 of a national newspaper. “Simple correlations such as that in the Leamon et al. paper are almost always misleading at best and wrong at worst…”