Sunday, December 18, 2011

Open letter to Andrew Revkin

Mr. Revkin, thanks for dropping by.

I appreciate your correction on the two sources you cited, the summary by the AGU and the paper itself. I’m sure you can understand how two pieces with different titles, different authors, and different dates of publication would appear to be different papers. I’ll correct the original post.

You may wish to correct this part of your post: “A paper published in Dec. 6. . . .” The summary was posted Dec 6; the paper was published Oct 19.

As to not being a “middleman” and avoiding “whiplash” -- I don’t entirely understand you here. You thought Semiletov et al were important enough to swiftly reply to the Independent piece, but not enough to speak with any of them or get an account of their findings? When you chose to write on Semiletov and the story in the Independent, you decided to get into a back-and-forth discussion. You then omitted Semiletov, leaving us with the -and-forth. I really don’t think that’s how you improve things.

I would be happier if instead of highlighting a paper published two months ago, you had been able to quote Dmitrenko as saying “Yeah, that Semiletov guy is a nut and his data on the ESAS are not to be trusted.” Then you’re telling one side of the story, but at least you’re telling the story. You didn’t do that; you brought out a modeling study from October.

Not that I don’t think you should remind us what the modeling is saying right now, but really. This expedition and the observations that led up to it are news. If they aren’t news, you should ignore them. If they are news, you can’t pull a book off the shelf and say you’ve explained the observations. It’s as if someone reported a mass revolt sweeping Jordan (surprising, unexpected, unlikely) and you replied by quoting a political science professor’s book from 2010 to the effect that popular revolutions were impossible in the Arab world.

Moreover, there is nothing like a consensus among scientists that we don’t need to worry about this issue or that the methane we’re seeing is just a 8,000-year dribbling out. Under the header "'Arctic Armageddon' Needs More Science, Less Hype" Richard Kerr wrote for the Journal Science that:

The threat of global warming amplifying itself by triggering massive methane releases is real and may already be under way, providing plenty of fodder for scary headlines. But what researchers understand about the threat points to a less malevolent, more protracted process.

Both sentences are part of the state of the science; but you appear to have chosen to only relate the latter part of the warning. I like everything you said about the modeling and Dmitrenko's team, but I think you needed to say more.

5 comments:

  1. "Both sentences are part of the state of the science; but you appear to have chosen to only relate the latter part of the warning"

    Exactly. And Revkin's editorializing that the Independent has "led the charge" on, get this, "fomenting" worry. Not led the charge to raise awareness about or even raise alarm bells (you remember Paul Revere that ALARMIST?..sometimes raising alarms is the right, and necessary thing to do. Not "the sky is falling" but "this is something potentially dangerous"..your quote of Kerr with his calling for "less alarmism" but himself stating "The threat of global warming amplifying itself by triggering massive methane releases is real and may already be under way" is as clear-cut as it gets that, yes, we should be raising alarms about what might be happening, and what might happen in the coming decades)..but no, it's "fomenting" worry to Revkin. How Revkin frames and his choice of language speaks volumes.

    Revkin's Dec 27th piece somehow couldn't find the miniscule amount of space to remind readers of "1km wide" and that this was new, nothing that big or that many had been seen before as the scientists reported.

    A criticism about framing to you too, when you write "Moreover, there is nothing like a consensus among scientists that we don’t need to worry about this issue or that the methane we’re seeing is just a 8,000-year dribbling out" namely your use of the word "just". Maybe you meant it ironically, essentially attributing the view that *were* this to turn out to be a millennia long process, then it would be "just" something to not worry about. But to casual reading your own use of the word "just" unfortunately buys-into the idea above. Buys into the idea that *if* it turns out to be a natural phenomenon, then, ok, it's "just" (meaning, something to not worry about, or worry far less). We shouldn't buy into that for the most elementary Precautionary Principle related reasons.

    We know for a fact that co2 warms the planet. We know for a fact that the arctic has warmed much faster than the rest of the planet. This is past tense, not predictions, but over e.g. the last 30-40 years, observations. Then predictions, based on very solid science and with a high degree of confidence, that the arctic will continue to warm faster than the rest of the planet.

    In this context, were it to turn out that these kilometer-wide emissions are the natural part, it would only make it more foolish, not less, to keep warming the arctic, to keep running an experiment on planet earth, to see what (yes Revkin, "what, if anything") would happen if we start with that (let's assume) 'natural' process and then add human caused planetary (and faster arctic) warming on top of that (let's keep assuming) natural phenomenon.

    Far from weakening things, far from being a "not this but just (only) that" instead it strengthens the precautionary argument.

    and of _course_ Revkin doesn't see himself as professional mild-middle..

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  2. (continued in separate post since the claimed limit of "no more than 4096 characters" doesn't let you post what emacs tell me was only 3845 characters..doubt there were enough contorl-Js to make up the difference..and if there were, blogspot should allow for one-click correction instead of being silly..) anyway the ending was:

    and of _course_ Revkin doesn't see himself as professional
    mild-middle..

    .A mainstream corporate media interviewer once said to a media critic (was it Chomsky?) that "do you really think we don't believe what we write? that we say it just to please the owners/advertisers?" (paraphrasing) Reply floored the interviewer who
    didn't see it coming: I'm sure you _do_ believe [not just the facts but the framing and paradigms you use]..it's just that if you didn't believe it, you wouldn't still be working there [those who don't adopt
    and truly internalize the corporate paradigms, get weeded out] it's too painful to believe one thing and write another..over time one adopts and internalizes or one quit or is fired. If I were hired tomorrow to be spokesperson for Obama (a fortiori, Bush) I'd over time start to truly _believe_ their excuses for policy hypocrisies etc..that's why I wouldn't accept, unless truly facing death by starvation, such a job

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  3. A criticism about framing to you too, when you write "Moreover, there is nothing like a consensus among scientists that we don’t need to worry about this issue or that the methane we’re seeing is just a 8,000-year dribbling out" namely your use of the word "just". Maybe you meant it ironically, essentially attributing the view that *were* this to turn out to be a millennia long process, then it would be "just" something to not worry about.

    If these methane emissions have been happening for the last 8,000 years, then they happened for thousands of years during which the methane levels in the atmosphere were low and stable.

    If they emissions are being accelerated by Arctic warming, of course that would be a problem, but Dmitrenko et al are arguing that this is not the case. So perhaps I should have made the distinction more clearly: if the methane plumes are BOTH of long standing AND have not signficantly expanded in volume, THEN there would indeed be little to worry about, as we could conclude that the Arctic emissions are a part of the methane cycle, which was stable before we started messing with it.

    This is a tricky area to reach firm conclusions about, because there is such a short record of observations. Meanwhile, Semiletov and Shakhova have expressed their view of their findings: http://theidiottracker.blogspot.com/2011/12/semiletov-and-shakhova-report.html. Notably, they caution that "we have never stated that the reason for the currently observed methane emissions were due to recent climate change" which is certainly something the Independent failed to note in their report.

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