Ed Wiebe

at the UVic Climate Lab

Man with soapbox makes numerous errors, again

Tom Fletcher is wrong about climate change

written by me, twitter-->@edwiebe, 2016-05-04

Tom Fletcher's latest commentary printed in the Black Press community papers (I saw it in the Saanich News) is, scientifically speaking, worthless. Worse than that, as it has been crafted according to commonly used climate change denier tactics, it is disingenuous and dangerous. Sadly, Tom Fletcher has some followers who seem to believe he has special insight into important matters. Whatever his motivation his commentary on climate science is wrong and easily, though laboriously, debunked.

The preamble to the essay is not the problem. It's meant only to lure the unwary reader into range. A folksy joke for olde timers and then yes, some facts are listed. Chinook winds exist, weather, perhaps even especially weather in the high mid-latitudes, is variable.

One of the common denier strategies Tom Fletcher uses is not to offer any support for much of what he writes. This is done purposefully as it makes rebuttal a bit more of a chore. I've searched out some stories that discuss the same events he mentions and some scientific papers or discussion of the science by credible sources. Remember also that what he has written is his opinion. It may be couched in the language of factual journalism but that's not what it is. Claims made in this way need not have any supporting evidence. Below, quotes are in grey boxes and Tom Fletcher's text is grey and in italics.

We get to more interesting topics when we reach the fifth paragraph.

Fletcher: Premier Christy Clark happened to be in Fort St. John to speak at a rally calling for the federal government to approve liquefied natural gas export projects, soon after the fires broke out. She immediately claimed this as proof that forest fire seasons are starting earlier every year, a human-caused disaster that could be eased by selling gas to China to replace coal.

I couldn't find any evidence that Premier Clark claimed to have proof that one fire meant fire seasons are starting earlier. On the contrary what I found Clark said is actually very reasonable. Tom Fletcher's use of the word proof is important to note as well. Claiming proof is a rhetorical technique that is meaningless in scientific discussions. What scientists search for and report on is evidence. Claims in science cannot be proven but evidence in support of claims can grow very strong. This is the case for human-caused climate change. The evidence in support of the idea that human activity is causing the observed changes to the Earth's climate system is overwhelming (see e.g., IPCC.ch).

What Premier Clark actually said.

"She said the early start to the fire season is alarming" (Link).

"forest fires in British Columbia, and North America, are being caused in part, exacerbated in part, by this drier climate. Drier climate is a product of climate change. If we want to be able to slow down the rate of temperature change and have fewer fires, or at least get stable on that front, we're going to have to step up our efforts to fight climate change" (Link).

"The wildfires in the Peace and across Northern B.C. are a grim reminder that fire season is starting earlier and earlier" (Link).

"This early start to the fire season is alarming for everyone in the province".

"I know it's been an immediate, urgent issue for people in the northeast, but if it's starting this early here, it's going to start early everywhere in the province.".

"This is the reality we're facing today as the planet gets warmer," she continued, saying climate change leads to dry conditions that exacerbate wildfires. (Link).

Tom Fletcher continues with the following text.

Fletcher: Last year's forest fire season started early, and the now-familiar claims were made that it would be the worst, the hottest, etc. It also ended early and was nowhere near the worst, a point mentioned by nobody except me.

Well done, Tom Fletcher, if indeed he made such a prediction. What Tom Fletcher is leaving out is any explanation of whose claims he is paraphrasing. Many people are talking about issues around climate change. Tom Fletcher and I will surely agree that many of those people are as poorly informed as he is. I am confident that if you ask (asked) credible experts the responses you would hear would be similar to that found, for example, in the following recent story about devastating wildfires happening in Fort McMurray, Alberta as I write this.

"This (fire) is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” Mike Flannigan, a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta, said." Link, Link).

Note the differences between the language of an expert and the claimed claims Tom Fletcher writes about. Experts show you how the evidence supports (or doesn't support) the claims being made. We see words like consisent and expect.

Fletcher: This spring’s early warm spell up north petered out within days*. Now the urban media can return to fretting about undetectable earthquakes in the region of the province with the lowest seismic risk, until fires spring up again.

The pointed reference to urban media, of which he is confusingly a part, is added as a dog-whistle to fans of Tom Fletcher's positions on a number of issues. Skipping over the paradox of undetectable earthquakes (irrelevent here but again a hint for his like-minded readers that the urban media dislikes hydraulic fracturing) we return to fires.

Fletcher: Forests Minister Steve Thomson and the B.C. Wildfire Service are more circumspect. There’s no way to predict rainfall this summer, and thus no brave forecast about "another" bad forest fire season. Professional staff emphasize that these northeast fires don’t predict anything.

I found this:

B.C. Forests Minister Steve Thomson said while there has been significant fire activity already this season, it does not foreshadow what might come.

"This is an early start, it doesn’t necessarily indicate what the long-term outlook for the fire season will be,” Mr. Thomson said during a conference call.

Kevin Skrepnek, B.C.’s chief fire information officer, echoed that sentiment.

"Once May and June comes around, that’s usually when we see quite a bit of precipitation in lots of areas of the province,” he said in an interview. “Certainly, right now, we do want people to be cautious – it is dry out there. But as to whether this is a sign of a big fire season to come, we just don’t know yet."

(Link but, be warned, it's from the Globe and Mail, the acme of urban media, in print anyway)

The minister's and professional staff's comments are reasonable and carefully worded. Tom Fletcher's statement's are also carefully worded but are meant to mock and deride others opposed to his views. Note the addition of brave and the scare quotes around another.

Examples of timely journalism where journalists ask experts questions and link to credible scientific sources of information are always around. We have always had to exercise judgement about what we read and that's still true for sources found online. Including this page!

Fletcher: We're coming off an El Nino winter that has been punctuated by claims of ever-rising temperatures.

Here Tom Fletcher is absolutely wrong. The ever-rising temperatures are observed facts not claims.

Fletcher: This cyclical warm Pacific Ocean current swings next to La Nina, a cooling trend, but you won't hear much about that.

On the contrary, you will hear about La Niña if you ask experts in BC to explain what it is and what its likely effect on British Columbia and elsewhere will be. This is because the effects of both El Niño and La Niña are genuinely important for a lot of people in BC and around the world. Tom Fletcher and others can access free online resources to learn about climate, climate change, and climate change impacts on British Columbia, including the El Niño and La Niña phenomena online. (e.g., Link). Furthermore, a reversal of the present state to a La Niña state is not certain. Neutral conditions are also possible and both the El Niño and La Niña phases can occur in different strengths. Various credible sources of this information are quickly found online. For example: consult the NWS Climate Prediction Center, or even this consultant who presents the information very clearly.

In the figure below you can see how the different phases of the cycle are reflected in the global average temperature, they ride on a rising tide. The trend lines showing how neutral, El Niño, and La Niña year global average temperatures since 1950 have changed are all very similar. Yes, when the next La Niña happens global average temperatures will likely reduce, but they won't drop far. This figure ends in 2015. 2016 will be marked as an El Niño year and will (very likely) represent a new high for this time-series.

The El Niño and La Niña cycle is superimposed on rising temperatures due to human caused climate change. (Source)

Fletcher: We've just seen Prime Minister Justin Trudeau join other national leaders, jetting to New York City to formally sign the meaningless greenhouse gas deal they agreed to in Paris last year. It compels them to keep on flying to meetings, and not much else. It defies parody.

There are some key climate denial signals here. Tom Fletcher is careful to point out that people fly to meetings using a word like jetting. Jetting connotes a sense of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and caters to his audience. What Tom Fletcher is trying to do is suggest the thoughtlessness of political leaders who may be paying lip service to climate change science while enjoying the perquisites of their positions. Commercial air travel is an important single source of fossil CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, it is also a present day necessity for many purposes. It's not paradoxical to use air travel to work toward a future where air travel is less harmful. One can, for example, imagine a future where no good solution to air travel is found but where such travel is deemed important enough to continue with fossil fuels. In that future, thoughtful governments and passengers could undertake other measures to remove the additonal carbon from the atmosphere. This is simply rhetoric on Tom Fletcher's part.

Tom Fletcher also offers his opinion on the merits of international agreements: meaningless. His feelings about government in general are indicated with his poorly phrased suggestion that leaders only get elected, only devise international agreements, in order to travel and don't do anything else of value. As for whose bevaviour defies parody, that can be left as an exercise for the reader.

Fletcher: Yes, the climate is changing, as it always has. Yes, we're in a period of gradual warming, although the rise is nowhere near what the UN's climate models predict.

I agree, climate changes and always has. Tom Fletcher may believe that by repeating this he is strengthening his arguments. In reality he is demonstrating his own ignorance. Scientists have no doubt that climate changed in the past, that it is changing now, and that it will change in the future. There is no doubt that this happens whether or not humans are present in the environment. Natural climate change is important, significant, and well-understood. It's so well understood that scientists can say with great confidence that the climate changes observed now are not natural. They are caused predominantly by human activity.

In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) this point is clearly addressed. All Tom Fletcher need do is read it.

Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800 000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

IPCC AR5, SPM, 1.2 Causes of climate chang

Tom Fletcher's claim that the observed rise is nowhere near what the UN's climate models predict is simply wrong. The observed change is in fact very near to predicted change. The observations of the climate system have been very near to the predicted changes for decades. Again, referring the IPCC AR5 SPM we find the following text.

Climate models have improved since the AR4. Models reproduce observed continental scale surface temperature patterns and trends over many decades, including the more rapid warming since the mid-20th century and the cooling immediately following large volcanic eruptions (very high confidence).

The IPCC SPM goes on to note ten specific issues related to the topic of global climate forecast models and summarizes each one with a confidence level. These issues include various strengths and weaknesses of such models.

In a paper from 2015, nine authors published new research comparing model calculations with observations. The work is summarized in an article published in the Guardian and is based on this paper: Cowtan, et al, (2015), Robust comparison of climate models with observations using blended land air and ocean sea surface temperatures, Geophys. Res. Lett., 42, 6526–6534, doi:10.1002/2015GL064888.

The Guardian article summarizes (link) but, see the original paper as well.

Now a new study shows that the models were even more accurate than previously thought.

This new study has shown that when we do an apples-to-apples comparison, climate models have done a good job projecting the observed temperatures where humans live.

Other recent papers (e.g. Schmidt, et al, Reconciling warming trends, Nature Geoscience 7, 158–160) have also shown just how good present-day climate models are in the sense of meaningfully and accurately reproducing the observed climate and making projections. As always, asking experts, of which there are many in BC, even in places remote from the urban media, enhances understanding of the issues not the opposite.

Fletcher: According to the environment ministry's 2015 Indicators of Climate Change report, B.C.'s average temperature has increased about 1.5 degrees from 1900 to 2013, slightly more in the north and less in the south. That's one one hundredth of a degree per year.

According to the report Tom Fletcher references (yes, a reference) the average warming over BC from 1900 to 2013 is 1.4 °C. I don't know why he writes about 1.5.

Fletcher: The B.C. report ritually attributes this to human-generated carbon dioxide, the only factor the UN climate bureaucracy recognizes. And here lies a key problem for the global warming industry.

By carefully choosing his words Tom Fletcher again signals to his fans that this is a moment for applause. Here, ritually, UN climate bureaucracy, and industry imply a system that exists apart from the science it reports, instead perhaps making claims merely to pad the pockets of those in the know with more hard-working, non-urban taxpayer's wealth. However, the effect of the fossil carbon added to the atmosphere by human activity is very precisely understood.

Apart from laboratory work spanning decades, indeed, spanning centuries, in variety of independent fields of physics and chemistry, we can find recent research that actually measured the effect in the environment. In a paper published in Nature in 2015 called, Observational determination of surface radiative forcing by CO2 from 2000 to 2010 (link), scientists report that they directly observed the climate impacts of well-mixed greenhouse gases. They write:

These results confirm theoretical predictions of the atmospheric greenhouse effect due to anthropogenic emissions, and provide empirical evidence of how rising CO2 levels...are affecting the surface energy balance.

Though Tom Fletcher doesn't mention it here let me point out that the origin of the additional carbon dioxide (and some other gases) that we see in the atmosphere is beyond dispute. Humans mining fossil carbon and burning it are indeed the source of the observed change. If you are keen on the details read chapter 6, Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles from the Working Group 1 report on the Physical Science Basis in the IPCC AR5.

A final important note as an addendum on the topic of the Indicators of Climate Change for British Columbia 2015 report that Tom Fletcher derisively dismisses is that this report is a summary of the work of the experts available here in BC. The report is a reasonable and mature summary of what we know about a wide range of phenomena of importance for British Columbians. It's ludicrous to dismiss it as simply another product of bureaucracy.

Fletcher: More than 90 per cent of the greenhouse effect in the Earth's atmosphere is from water vapour. Antarctic ice core analysis shows that over 400,000 years, increasing carbon dioxide has lagged centuries behind temperature increase. This suggests that rising temperatures lead to increased CO2, not the other way around.

In this passage Fletcher shows us he doesn't understand the basics of climate science. What he is referring to is the natural greenhouse effect and specifically only the water vapour component of that. Yes, water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas though it doesn't operate in the atmosphere in the same way as carbon dioxide. The natural greenhouse effect boosts Earth's temperature up into a range that makes the planet livable.

Without an atmosphere the average temperature of the Earth would be similar to that of the moon. The surface would be bitterly cold at night and very hot during the day but the average would be about -18 °C. Instead, the Earth's atmosphere, made up of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapour, argon, carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases, provides a natural greenhouse effect raising the average surface temperature to a more comfortable 15 °C. One can easily find credible, expert explanations of this process by asking experts or even by simply searching on the internet and exercising judgement about the quality of the source of the found material. For example NASA published a "Science Brief" explaining this in 1998. (Link)

A second key error that Tom Fletcher makes here is that water vapour, while having a strong greenhouse warming effect, cannot be the cause of recently observed global warming. In brief, this is because water in the atmosphere can condense out of it again. Instead, the role of water vapour is as a feedback enhancing the warming caused by the other greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, that humans are adding to the atmosphere. A warmer atmosphere can include more water vapour than a cooler one. Think about what happens to the relative humidity of air when the temperature changes with no addition or removal of water, or why a house in northeast BC is so dry inside in the winter. The extra water vapour in a warmer atmosphere then in turn increases the temperature of the atmosphere more than it would in the absence of the additional carbon dioxide that started the warming in the first place. Again, this positive feedback is a simple fact and one that Tom Fletcher could have learned by asking one (or more than one) of many experts here in BC.

Fletcher: (Scientific American, working hard to debunk this, found a study that shows the CO2 lag is only 200 years, rather than 800 as others calculate. Still, it can't be causing warming.)

Tom Fletcher's parenthetical remark here is worthless. Firstly, while the Scientific American article is fine for what it is, it was already a bit behind the times when it came out. A research paper published just after this story eliminated any remaining trace of doubt about the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature in the past 800 000 years. I've quoted the abstract and listed the reference below. As for the working hard to debunk, and found a study digs, well, let's just be charitable and remember Tom Fletcher apparently just doesn't understand how science is reported to scientists (in detail) and to everyone else (in much less detail).

Understanding the role of atmospheric CO2 during past climate changes requires clear knowledge of how it varies in time relative to temperature. Antarctic ice cores preserve highly resolved records of atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic temperature for the past 800,000 years. Here we propose a revised relative age scale for the concentration of atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic temperature for the last deglacial warming, using data from five Antarctic ice cores. We infer the phasing between CO2 concentration and Antarctic temperature at four times when their trends change abruptly. We find no significant asynchrony between them, indicating that Antarctic temperature did not begin to rise hundreds of years before the concentration of atmospheric CO2, as has been suggested by earlier studies.

Synchronous Change of Atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic Temperature During the Last Deglacial Warming, F. Parrenin, et al, Science, 01 Mar 2013, 1060-1063

Secondly, Tom Fletcher hoped, I assume, to bolster his case by reference to a reference to a scientific paper. What he's not understanding is that, like water vapour, carbon dioxide also participates in a positive temperature feedback in the climate system. Understanding this process and how it has occurred in the past is part of particular field of study called paleoclimatology. It's not a completely understood phenomenon but broadly speaking what we know about climate change in the past reinforces what we know about the human contributions to present-day climate change not the other way around. So, through his ignorance and apparent unwillingness to ask experts even by proxy, Tom Fletcher is effectively arguing in support of human-caused climate change.

Again, asking an expert brings clarity. See, for example, a web page from 2004 at Real Climate, a site with content written by practising climate scientists.

Fletcher: Conventional climate wisdom is that B.C. will see more total rainfall as temperatures warm. This is a matter of significance to BC Hydro, which recently released its latest power supply and demand forecast.

Much of the electricity we use in BC is generated by hydroelectric systems. These systems use water, typically stored in reservoirs and falling onto turbines, to generate electricity. So, here Tom Fletcher is correct. It is a fact that BC Hydro and other hydroelectric utilities are interested in the effects of future climate change on their very expensive systems and future investments. I recently participated in research on this topic, investigating how we can model future changes to climate extremes and how these changes may affect BC including effects on changes to water storage in watersheds around the province. (Curry, et al, 2016: Searching for added value in simulating climate extremes with a high-resolution regional climate model over Western Canada. Atmosphere-Ocean). It is important to remember that rain is not the only variable that BC Hydro need take into account. Snow is important as well as when and how quickly the snow melts. Water levels in many river systems affected by dams and reservoirs also need to be maintained at times at certain levels and temperatures to support fish that BC values.

Fletcher: I asked BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald at a recent briefing, what is the utility's climate change factor in this forecast?

There isn't one.

I can't confirm what Tom Fletcher asked or what he heard in reply but I can show that BC Hydro does seem to take climate change seriously. In a document from 2012 found on bchydro.com we can read the following:

Global climate change is upon us. Both natural cycles and anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions influence climate in British Columbia and the river flows that supply the vast majority of power that BC Hydro generates. BC Hydro’s climate action strategy addresses both the mitigation of climate change through reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation to climate change by understanding the risks and magnitude of potential climatic changes to our business today and in the future.

The document lists a number of observed and projected changes of importance to BC Hydro and British Columbians. Link

In conclusion: Tom Fletcher makes a number of basic errors in this essay. I cannot speculate on why he makes these errors. Perhaps he will explain this himself in his next opinion piece.

*I don't take pleasure in it but I have to remind you that this was published even as entire neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray were burning in record breaking ~30 °C temperatures (Link).

[Thanks are owed to readers who through thoughtful criticism improved this work.]

[NOTE added 2016-05-05]: As the fire burns around and through Fort McMurray, BC is also battling a large number of fires, "Since April 1, 203 fires have broken out in B.C., burning more than 23,000 hectares. That’s a leap from the 10-year average of 120 fires burning 1,168 hectares, said Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service." Times Colonist.

[Edit, 2016-06-06] "Climate change is here," Flannigan says. "And we’re seeing more fires and arguably more intense fires because of it".

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