Unending global warming hyperbole finally too much

References in the news media to global warming and its dire consequences are frequently inexact, unbalanced and unnecessarily alarming—sometimes even wrong. Their endless repetition is tiresome. Also they are dangerous, in that people disinclined to check for themselves will inevitably start to believe them. New Zealanders deserve better.

Perhaps what the media need for improvement is simply a public analysis. Since our nation is adorned with the Broadcasting Standards Authority and the New Zealand Press Council, which exist to, among other things, encourage and enforce standards of truth and balance, it makes sense to use them. So these analyses will be sent as complaints to the responsible broadcaster or publisher and, unless they give a satisfactory response, will then be sent to the BSA or the NZPC for further, more official, public analysis.

Let’s start with an unscholarly piece from Campbell Live on TV3. This complaint was posted to TV3 on 21st December, 2007.

The following story appeared on Campbell Live on 12 December 2007 (see the original video).

Melting sea ice endangers penguins

John Campbell: But first, to get more evidence of global warming and its consequences.

The melting sea ice, which covers so much less area than it did as recently as 1980, is directly impacting on penguin numbers.

Populations of one type of penguin have dropped by two thirds in just a quarter of a century.

We have all seen the pictures of polar bears stranded on pieces of ice that can simply no longer sustain them.

But it now seems that if the ice melts much further, some breeds of penguin will face an extremely tough battle to survive.

ITN video clip

ITN voiceover: They may live in the coldest place on the planet, but the earth’s heat is threatening their survival, and as temperatures in Antarctica increase, the number of penguins decline.

Forty per cent of the continent’s sea ice has melted in the last three decades, leaving four populations with a shrinking habitat and food supply.

The flightless birds’ struggle for survival is something that has already been brought to the public’s attention in recent box office hits March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. But now conservation charity WWF is trying to bring the plight of Hollywood’s favourite bird to the attention of the UN climate change summit in Bali. For only humans can change the fate of the penguins by reducing global emissions.

Without sea ice many penguins can’t survive. The largest of the species, the majestic Emperor penguin, has become the most vulnerable, because it needs stable land-locked sea ice for breeding. High winds and thinning ice has meant many eggs and baby birds are being blown away.

Emily Lewis Brown, WWF Marine Climate Change Officer: It’s going to be difficult for some of these colonies of penguins to continue with the amount of losses that they’ve been suffering over recent years, and the ice is so important to these species, and without the ice they just really do have a very bleak future.

ITN: As well as the Emperor species, the archetypal Adele penguin in their dinner jackets, the Gentoo penguins, famous for their white bonnets, and the Chinstrap population have all seen declines in recent years. And with warming occurring five times faster in the Antarctic Peninsula than anywhere else in the world, there are fears that the distinct personalities and endearing waddles of these loveable birds may soon be on show only in zoos and documentaries. [END OF VIDEO]

I believe this story breached standards of both balance and accuracy.

The story was unbalanced in failing to present alternative points of view regarding the controversial topic of global warming. In addition, it breached standards of accuracy by promising certain facts and failing to deliver them, presenting as fact what is untrue and exaggerating, as I shall describe.

In Mr Campbell’s first sentence he claims to be about “to get more evidence of global warming and its consequences” yet he presents no such evidence. The only statement which might be considered evidence is the second paragraph of the ITN reporter’s monologue (“forty per cent of the continent’s sea ice has melted in the last three decades”). But that statement is neither true nor, if it were true, would it be evidence of global warming (which might be due to regional changes—for example, changed atmospheric or ocean currents, bringing warmer air or water to Antarctica).

The story contains several other assertions but no “more” evidence. His first statement was therefore incorrect.

Campbell’s second sentence implies a large decrease in the extent of Antarctic sea ice since 1980. This is incorrect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported six years ago on Antarctic sea ice extent in Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. They told us that since 1980 sea ice extent has actually increased, not decreased. The graph, below, of sea ice extent anomalies (departures from the average), from the IPCC Third Assessment Report, illustrates this. There is a clear upwards trend from 1980 to 2000.


Antarctic sea-ice extent

Figure 2.16: Monthly Antarctic sea-ice extent anomalies, 1973 to 2000, relative to 1973 to 1996. The data are a blend of National Ice Center (NIC) chart-derived data (Knight, 1984), Goddard Space Flight Center satellite passive-microwave (Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) and Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I)) derived data (Cavalieri et al., 1997) and National Centers for Environmental Prediction satellite passive-microwave derived data (Grumbine, 1996). It is uncertain as to whether the decrease in interannual variability of sea ice after about 1988 is real or an observing bias.

CORRECTION 3 Jan, 2024: My own conclusion of 16 years ago that this graph “contradicts” Campbell’s assertion of “so much less” sea ice looks hasty. There was a small increase after 1980, but overall a clear reduction.

This flatly contradicts Campbell’s assertion of “so much less” sea ice since 1980. It wasn’t hard to find: search Google for “antarctic sea ice extent” (without quotes) and the reference to the IPCC 2001 report is second in the results list.

Campbell’s reference to “polar bears stranded on pieces of ice that can simply no longer sustain them” is frankly ridiculous, since polar bears are not sustained by ice but by their prey, for which they hunt on, around and under the ice. His doleful tone invites us to worry about the polar bears but he gives us no cause for concern. Also, polar bears have nothing to do with penguins, since they live in different hemispheres. He seeks to link the Arctic regions, where no penguins live, and which has been warming, with the Antarctic, empty of polar bears, but which has been cooling. In short, mentioning polar bears in this context misleads us into believing that the warming of the polar bears’ habitat is also happening in the penguins’, which is untrue.

The ITN piece states that Antarctic temperatures are increasing, causing penguin populations to decline, which is disingenuous. The truth is that temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased and some penguin populations on it have declined. But this narrow peninsula, the most northerly portion of the continent, projecting about 500km beyond the Antarctic Circle into warmer latitudes, comprises only about 2% of the continent itself, the bulk of which has been cooling since the 1960s. Some penguin colonies on the peninsula are indeed declining as ice conditions change, but some, preferring different conditions, are prospering and moving into the ranges vacated by others. ITN fail to mention that colonies in the rest of the vast continent are unaffected by conditions on the peninsula.

Research shows that Gentoo, Southern Rockhopper and Magellanic penguin colonies, especially in and around the Falklands, were ravaged during the 1980s and 1990s by commercial fishing activities targeting the penguins’ prey species, reducing some penguin populations by about 84%. But that was fishing fleets—it had nothing to do with global warming.

ITN refer to “four populations with a shrinking habitat and food supply” and “these colonies of penguins”, thus identifying discrete populations, but otherwise give the clear impression that entire species of penguin are at risk, ending with the heart-tugging plaint “that the distinct personalities and endearing waddles of these loveable birds may soon be on show only in zoos and documentaries.”

Endearing waddles? Enduring twaddle! There is no endangered Antarctic penguin species. The only penguin currently listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered under the Endangered Species Act is the Galapagos penguin, and that doesn’t live in the Antarctic, but way up on the equator—off the coast of Ecuador, where it isn’t cold, it’s very hot. The WWF ought to know that, even with “warming occurring five times faster in the Antarctic Peninsula than anywhere else in the world,” and even if all the penguins on that (small) peninsula perished as a result, no species would be rendered extinct, since they live in huge numbers elsewhere as well.

The concluding statement is an obvious exaggeration intended to induce concern or alarm in the listener for the impending doom of the penguins—a doom that is denied by the facts.

The ITN reporter’s statement that “forty per cent of the continent’s sea ice has melted in the last three decades” cannot be justified. The graph above shows the truth—that winter sea ice has increased. In addition, in the southern hemisphere winter of 2007, the Antarctic sea ice extended to a record high of 16.2 million square kilometres—the greatest since measurements started in 1979. These facts contradict her statement. One might conclude that the WWF themselves, who presumably are responsible for these same assertions in the original press release, and should know the facts, chose to ignore the facts, but Campbell Live ought to have checked them. This statement is outrageous in its inaccuracy.

One more statement must be challenged on factual and logical grounds—“High winds and thinning ice has meant many eggs and baby birds are being blown away.”

First, how does global warming cause high winds, and thus how can “the fate of the penguins” be changed by humans “reducing global emissions”? What humans are globally emitting is not stated.

Second, how does thinning ice lead to “eggs and baby birds being blown away”? The concept is absurd. What connection is there between thinning ice and high winds? Among the large audience observing this story on Campbell Live, did anybody else hear this piece of nonsense?

Finally, anyone who knows that the supposedly fragile male Emperor spends the winter standing huddled with the colony, an egg incubating in a special flap on his feet, his back to the gale, his head bowed, shuffling around to share duty on the storm-blown edge of the pack of birds, all while fasting, understands that they already survive the fury of midnight Antarctic blizzards, which anyway will not be ended by reducing “global emissions”, so it’s hard to imagine a tiny rise in temperature hurting them. Actually, would not reducing a warming trend make the blizzards still colder?

The bulk of the story concerns the pressures on Antarctic penguin populations. Campbell stated “Populations of one type of penguin have dropped by two thirds in just a quarter of a century” without stating which species of penguin or why they dropped and implying they are still at risk. After some detective work I think he’s talking about the Adelie penguin population, which, perhaps affected by declining winter sea ice, dropped by that amount.

However, the Adelie species is far from threatened as he implies, being common around the entire coast of Antarctica and adjacent islands—in the Ross Sea region alone the Adelie population numbers more than 5,000,000 birds.

The Emperor penguin population declined during the late 1970s and stabilised again in the 1980s. The decline has been attributed to an abnormally long warm spell in the Southern Ocean. Apparently it is not possible to determine whether that was due to natural variability in the Antarctic weather systems or global warming, since earlier data is not available. ITN’s assertion that the Emperors are at risk because of global warming cannot be substantiated.

As a final check with reality, we should remember there are colonies of penguins living in zoos around the world which survive perfectly well away from the polar ice. So a little warming (just about 0.8°C since 1850!) cannot be as terrible as we’re being told.

The facts I have cited above are easy to find. It is reprehensible of Campbell Live to air such shoddy journalism, no matter what cause they think they serve in doing so.

I await your response, sir, with a strong sense of anticipation, and I hope that even at this time of the year I will not have to wait over long.

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