April seems to have been “Beat up on Christopher Monckton” month among climate science bloggers. Why all the attention? Part of the reason is even reputable media outlets the likes of The New York Times continue to treat him as the equal of someone with genuine professional expertise in matter climatological. Also relevant is his brief candidacy for public office in the May 6 general election in the U.K. He is now just climate change spokesperson for the UK Independence Party.


I hope it’s not too late to add my own thoughts. First, it matters not one whit whether Monckton is or isn’t a member of the House of Lords (though he isn’t) or whether he has claimed to be one (he has). Misrepresenting yourself may be ethically questionable or even fraudulent, but it doesn’t make you wrong about what’s happening to the climate any more than your political office (or lack of one) means you understand a scientific subject.

It is also irrelevant that his educational o background and career has nothing to do with science of any kind, let alone climatology. Remember that Einstein worked as a patent clerk, not an academic, when he wrote the papers that revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

No, all that matters is whether he represents the science of climate change accurately. So it behooves us to take a look at his understanding of the subject. There are plenty of reliable sources of analysis of this. Peter Sinclair found enough material to devote two episodes of his Climate Crock series to Monckton’s inability to get the material correct. What is still worth looking at is how clever the man is when it comes to twisting the facts. It’s not that he has no idea of what he’s talking about. In fact, he seems quite very familiar with the science, and is able to toss out jargon that makes him appear to be the equal of a working climatologist. This makes him dangerous.

Here’s a perfect example. In anticipation of his appearance at Utah Valley University in March, the Daily Herald, a local newspaper, printed an essay of his under the title “Climate facts, not ‘consensus’.”

The central question is this: how much warming will a given increase in CO2 concentration cause? The answer? Very little.

In the Neoproterozoic Era, 750 million years ago, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 300,000 parts per million by volume, more than 770 times today’s 388 ppmv. Yet, at the equator and at sea level, glaciers came and went twice. If CO2 had the exaggerated warming effect that the UN’s climate panel pretends, those glaciers could not have existed.

Note how he uses the term “ppmv” instead of the less precise ppm. Parts per million as a measured by volume is preferred over the simpler parts per million by scientists and is often the sort of thing that distinguishes a professional climatologist from a layperson. And surely anyone who can date the Neoproterozoic Era is worth paying attention to, no?

But it turns out that Monckton completely confuses the issue. Yes, CO2 concentrations did reach extremely high levels back then, and glaciers did come and go. But that’s not the full story. Here’s the abstract from a paper by Paul Hoffman and colleagues, “Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth,” that appeared in Science in 1998 (emphasis is mine):

Negative carbon isotope anomalies in carbonate rocks bracketing Neoproterozoic glacial deposits in Namibia, combined with estimates of thermal subsidence history, suggest that biological productivity in the surface ocean collapsed for millions of years. This collapse can be explained by a global glaciation (that is, a snowball Earth), which ended abruptly when subaerial volcanic outgassing raised atmospheric carbon dioxide to about 350 times the modern level. The rapid termination would have resulted in a warming of the snowball Earth to extreme greenhouse conditions.

If a 12-year-old paper is too dated for you. How about this from a 2009 textbook, Paleoclimates, by Thomas Cronin:

In sum, the Earth was severely glaciate several times between 750 and 580 Ma (million years ago), each time exiting a global or near-global glacial state into warmer climate. (p. 64)

Nevermind Monckton’s comparatively minor overstating of the maximum CO2 level of the period by a factor of two. The evidence we have from the period only strengthens the case that high CO2 levels are associated with much warmer climates. Stating that “If CO2 had the exaggerated warming effect that the UN’s climate panel pretends, those glaciers could not have existed” misses the point entirely. What the science actually suggests is the glaciers disappeared because of CO2‘s warming effect.

For more in this vein, here are the links to the first and second parts of the Climate Crock videos.

Again, none of this is to say we should dismiss someone’s opinions just because he or she doesn’t come equipped with a pertinent PhD. But when an “outsider” claims to have an understanding superior to the vast majority of those who do have genuine expertise, it’s worth doing a little research before granting your trust. This is where Class M hopes to play a modest public service. It is my intention to provide what guidance I can in interpreting what scientists (and others with a public platform) say climate change means for the future of the planet. I can think of nothing more important.

Comments

  1. #1 Anarchist606
    April 30, 2010

    Like it. Interesting post. Also worth looking at Monkton’s claims in other areas of science:
    http://anarchist606.blogspot.com/2010/04/election-uk-ukips-science-policy-fail.html

  2. #2 MadScientist
    April 30, 2010

    Welcome back (did you ever leave?) Is “Class: M” a trekkie thing?

    Monckton does remind me of the Very Model of a Modern Major General. I’m sure he’s an expert at polishing the handles on the big brass door.

    “Parts per million as a measured by volume is preferred over the simpler parts per million by scientists”

    I have to disagree with that one; many atmospheric scientists will simply say or even write “ppm” when the audience is expected to see that “ppmv” is obvious; after all, “ppmw” is very rarely used in the literature (except perhaps if you’re reading about a gravimetric preparation of gases).

    I would guess that when people can’t understand a threat they tend to deny it; the recent ban on air traffic in Europe is a good example – there seemed to be no end of self-proclaimed experts stating that the UK Met Office (London VAAC) got it all wrong and that aircraft would have been safe to fly. The people making those statements of course can’t tell a volcanic plume from an ordinary cloud nor can they tell you the tolerable levels of sand in the air or how much sand is in the air – but they’re sure they can fly safely – they even did “test flights” to prove it. The climate denial website “wattsup” even got in on the act.

  3. #3 Tony Sidaway
    April 30, 2010

    Thanks for the reminder. Being British myself I’m not bombarded with news about Monckton on my local media and as he’s not a scientist, and I’m already aware of Thatcher’s own science-led view on global warming as long ago as the late 1980s, I have tended to underestimate the extent to which Monckton is lauded as a credible spokesman elsewhere. My error.

    The first thing that struck me was his pervasive and unauthorized use of the House of Parliament crest. This appears on slides he uses in the talks. He also uses language inventively giving the false impression, in addressing the United States Congress, that he speaks for the British legislature.

    While it’s interesting to see a dissection of his bogus science, we’ve seen before that being debunked has little real effect on the shameless, whose constituencies have already made up their mind anyway. His repeated grievous self-misrepresentation is his point of vulnerability. Exploit that and he will lose what little credibility he retains.

  4. #4 Ambitwistor
    April 30, 2010

    I believe Monckton overstated the maximum CO2 by more than a factor of two. I don’t think recent estimates are anywhere near the 350x modern you cite. For example, Bao et al. (2008) gets a range between 5,000 and 30,000 ppmv. Bao has a newer paper in Science which may revise that range, but I don’t have access to it.

  5. #5 pam
    April 30, 2010

    Welcome! I am all for data that moves Earth towards a quieter peaceful place

  6. #6 william e emba
    April 30, 2010

    It is also irrelevant that his educational o background and career has nothing to do with science of any kind, let alone climatology.

    Out of nowhere, I’d say it is relevant. Highly relevant.

    Remember that Einstein worked as a patent clerk, not an academic, when he wrote the papers that revolutionized our understanding of the universe.

    This is downright silly. So silly, it’s as if you’re admitting you’re wrong. It seems you are confusing Einstein with Good Will Hunting.

    Einstein was in graduate school, working on his physics doctorate, while “clerking” at the patent office. That in itself marks your comment as silly. Nobody holds your working-your-way-through-school “career” as evidence of lack of expertise.

    But your statement is even sillier. I bet you don’t know what a “patent clerk” is. He wasn’t some low-level drudge who helped wannabe inventors file their paperwork in order. He was a high-level technical examiner, analyzing patents for their technical merit. Einstein specialized in electromagnetic devices, some of which were related to synchronization over long distances. If anything, Einstein’s clerking helped inspire relativity!

    See Peter Galison Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time.

  7. #7 MikeB
    April 30, 2010

    Sadly, it does matter ‘one whit whether Monckton is or isn’t a member of the House of Lords (though he isn’t) or whether he has claimed to be one (he has)’. Tragically, a title (real or imagined) does wonders for your credibility. It also has the knack of getting you coverage in the media, whereas calling yourself plain Mr Monckton would leave you out in the cold.

    Its not just Monckton of course – there are pages of various UK newspapers and magazines devoted to the doings of minor members of the aristocracy and (almost as minor) royalty (either bad, boring or just dumb) . We shouldn’t care, but enough do – that’s why it matters that he continues to use the phrase ‘Lord’ whenever he can.
    He would just be a loon without the title. With it he’s interesting. Sadly.

  8. #8 MartinM
    April 30, 2010

    Well, Monckton is a Lord. Just not a member of the House.

  9. #9 Kermit
    April 30, 2010

    Was the Cronin quote supposed to be
    “750 and 580 Ma” perhaps?

    5809 Ma ago seems excessive…

  10. #10 MadScientist
    April 30, 2010

    @william e emba: Can you just state the facts without getting all silly and making ridiculous accusations like ‘I bet you don’t know what a “patent clerk” is.’

    @MartinM: Is it common for minor peers to strut around misrepresenting themselves as a member of the legislature?

  11. #11 Tony Sidaway
    May 1, 2010

    The point isn’t that his peerage is minor–it’s that he claims associations that he isn’t entitled to. He is entitled to stand for vacant positions in the House of Lords as they become available, but unless and until elected, whenever he knowingly makes statements that imply that he is in any way associated with the British Parliament he is openly and blatantly lying.

  12. #12 guthrie
    May 1, 2010

    MatinM – no, I’ve not heard of anyone else claiming membership of the HoL that isn’t entitled to it.

  13. #13 Vlad
    May 1, 2010

    How do these citations negate Monckton’s premise?

    The paper says that the warm periods *can* be explained by rise in CO2 levels, but were the correlative fluctuations observed? Unfortunately, I’m not nearly competent enough to properly read the paper, but it seems to say only that the evidence found is consistent with the snowball hypothesis. They don’t seem to infer or even to cite observed CO2 level in the atmosphere, or to correlate it with the eventual melting. Can you please clarify?

    The textbook quote says only that there were fluctuations in glaciation, and does not cite possible causes.

  14. #14 MartinM
    May 1, 2010

    Yes, I know Monckton is lying about his (non)membership of the House. I was simply pointing out to MikeB that his use of the title ‘Lord’ is legitimate.

  15. #15 Web Hub Tel
    May 1, 2010

    Is there any hope of describing climate science in a more canonical fashion? I suggest that if we can reduce the fundamentals to a one-liner, that we have some hope. If we have a Kirchoff’s law for this stuff, we can use it to pound some sense into these people.

    Check this out:
    http://mobjectivist.blogspot.com/2010/04/fat-tail-in-co2-persistence.html

  16. #16 guthrie
    May 1, 2010

    MartinM – sorry, I put your name instead of madscientists name in my comment, it was addressed to them regarding their query.

  17. #17 MikeB
    May 1, 2010

    #14 – When I used the phrase ‘a title (real or imagined)’, I didn’t actually mean Monckton specifically: his title is real, its just his membership of the House of Lords which is imagined.

    What’s so annoying is that merely by using his title, he confers a degree of supposed expertise and importance to whatever he is talking about to a worrying part of any potential audience.
    Much the same goes for Nigel Lawson. As a financial journalist, he had no background in climate science; as a Chancellor, even less, but simply by being elevated to the House of Lords, he is seen as an ‘expert’ by the more stupid and credulous members of the media.
    If we want to kill Monckton’s credibility, then its not enough to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Remove his status as a ‘Lord’ by pointing out his various fantasies, exaggerations and eccentricies, and you make him look a fool, not a hero.

    If not, then wait for the News of the Screws to have a go – they’ve done the rest of the aristocracy…

  18. #18 Jose A. Veragio
    May 1, 2010

    “The central question is this: how much warming will a given increase in CO2 concentration cause? The answer? Very little. ”

    Right or wrong, that’s what makes him so credible with normal people ‘though. He is a master of communication, able to put complex & inaccessible science into perspective.

    Nevertheless he quantifies elsewhere the above statement in considerable detail, for those with the stomach for it.
    Temperature Change and CO2 Change – A Scientific Briefing

    He is the antidote to dramatic headlines conjured up , for effect, from isolated facts and a lot of conjecture.

    That is indeed powerful and dangerous for anyone counting on the obscurity of Climate Science.

  19. #19 pough
    May 1, 2010

    Is his “House of Lord”* crowned portcullis logo pink on purpose, or did he get it from some clip art and not know how to change the colour?

    * singular on purpose

  20. #20 MadScientist
    May 2, 2010

    @Web Hub Tel: A “half-life” for CO2? I don’t think so; half-life is commonly used for radioactive material. Atmospheric gases will have a “residence time” (average time a released gas will spend before being removed from the atmosphere) and sometimes a “lifetime” is defined (commonly the time taken for some amount released to drop to 1/e of the original amount released). In the case of CO2, a figure often quoted is an estimate of the time needed to replace all CO2 in the air assuming the observed seasonal variation in CO2. Of course burning all that fossil fuel has put things out of whack and nature can’t quite keep up.

  21. #21 guthrie
    May 2, 2010

    Can someone ban Dave MAbus – he is a serial internet troll who has no relevance to anything he posts on.

  22. #22 Steven Earl Salmony
    May 2, 2010

    Please pass around the following link. I would like to invite out-of-the-box thinking in response to the most formidable of human-driven global challenges.

    http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/05/population-overshoot-is-determined-by-food-overproduction/

    Thank you to all for all you are doing,

    Steve

  23. #23 william e emba
    May 2, 2010

    @william e emba: Can you just state the facts without getting all silly and making ridiculous accusations like ‘I bet you don’t know what a “patent clerk” is.’ [MadScientist]

    The accusation is not ridiculous. Why on earth would anyone propose a patent clerk as an example of someone people think of as incapable of doing interesting science? Because they think a patent clerk is merely a “clerk” in the “patent” office? Or because …?

  24. #24 Tony Sidaway
    May 2, 2010

    The bottom line is that in the British general election Monckton has taken a position as the global warming spokesman for one of the two extreme minority parties that are swimming against the tide. This is a savvy move both on Monckton’s part and on UKIP’s part, because their constituencies match very well.

    But it’s harsh facts like this (at least for Monckton) that convince me that he is not a serious challenge. Just keep quietly plugging away at his rather blatant lies about himself. That’s his weakness. His main strength is his ability to identify his geographically dispersed constituency and travel to them. That he trails his blatant lies right into the heart of the opposition makes him, far more than the less dishonest denialists, one of our greatest assets in communicating the fact of denialism.

    Monckton is the missing link between denialism and outright confidence trickery. His impostures are so blatant. He lies, openly and without shame, and with every lie he deals another blow to his chosen cause.

  25. #25 Ankit Porwal
    May 3, 2010

    “Have you used BlogolB? Its an attempt to develop a searchable and categorized directory of the thousands of WordPress Blogs out there.”..

  26. #26 hexkid
    May 4, 2010

    @william e emba : Your understanding of Einstein’s career is wrong. Einstein’s role as a patent clerk was NOT a part-time position to fund his on-going academic career. He took the job after he was unable to find a teaching role after his graduation. His grades prior to graduating were not sufficient to allow him to continue and unknown to him his unflattering references from his tutors were actually a major cause of his unemployment.

    He continued his studies in is spare time and published his initial papers without any affiliation to a University. He lived and worked in Bern which would have been over 2 hours journey from Zurich, the university which finally gave him his doctorate. There is no way he would have done a 4 hour commute to pursue a part-time job.

    Even his papers published in the Annus Mirabilis show no affiliation the University of Zurich or any other academic institution.

  27. #27 Anna Haynes
    May 5, 2010

    > “It is also irrelevant that his educational background and career has nothing to do with science…”

    I beg to differ.
    For a scientist with expertise in the field, it’s irrelevant, but for a busy, distracted layman who’s trying to quickly assess Monckton’s credibility, it’s very relevant.

  28. #28 william e emba
    May 7, 2010

    hexkid wrote:

    Your understanding of Einstein’s career is wrong. Einstein’s role as a patent clerk was NOT a part-time position to fund his on-going academic career.

    I said nothing about part-time. Einstein was involved with graduate studies at ETH from 1900-1905, sometimes on, sometimes off. At one point he thought of quitting even.

    He continued his studies in his spare time and published his initial papers without any affiliation to a University.

    What of it? Almost none of the papers published in Annalen der Physik list affiliations for anyone in 1905.

    He lived and worked in Bern which would have been over 2 hours journey from Zurich, the university which finally gave him his doctorate.

    Actually, Einstein was affiliated with ETH, not Zurich. ETH did not grant doctorates at the time, but there was an arrangement.

  29. #29 Guess The Word
    http://kilbil.com/profile-49769/info/
    March 6, 2013

    I do enjoy the manner in which you have framed this concern and it does indeed supply me a lot of fodder for thought. On the other hand, from everything that I have witnessed, I simply just trust as the actual commentary stack on that people today remain on point and don’t start upon a soap box regarding the news of the day. All the same, thank you for this outstanding piece and although I can not really go along with this in totality, I value the standpoint.

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